Page 2 of 4
For many anti-trappers, the issue stretches beyond the danger posed to domestic dogs. Broader arguments include trap cruelty, the "incidental" trapping of endangered species or non-target animals, and a lack of regulation by FWP.
"It is a good-old-boy club where the trappers make the regulations," says Heister. "There are a lot of trappers within Fish, Wildlife and Parks. They have a furbearer coordinator who is an avid trapper, and game wardens who are trappers."
Last year, over 4,000 trappers purchased licenses in the state of Montana. One of the main concerns for Footloose is that trappers don't have to take an education course to get a license, and theoretically trappers can also set out a limitless number of traps.
The law requires lethal traps be set 300 feet away from trails, while a snare has to be at least 1,000 feet away. FWP sets quotas on four species—bobcat, otter, wolverine and fisher—and trappers must notify the agency if one is caught. But for many other species, there is no limit on how many animals can be trapped. Footloose claims there's little enforcement, and even less incentive for trappers to adhere to suggestions like checking traps every 48 hours. For the organization and its supporters, trappers don't care.
"In my personal opinion most trappers couldn't care less about animals suffering," says Heister.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Many trappers say new technology has made kill traps more efficient—and, therefore, more ethical. Newer snares like the Quick Kill Snare Spring cinch down more effectively to kill quickly. Other mechanisms include a Break-Away “S” hook, which releases any potential non-target animals like deer that can put 80 pounds of pressure on it.
It's a damning conclusion for trappers. Though many of the cases involving domestic dogs are linked to illegal trapping, the incidents have become the black mark on all trappers and, subsequently, the chief argument for a ban. It's exactly the kind of example Footloose needs to champion another ballot initiative.
"In the United States," Footloose Montana states, "trapping is an overwhelmingly recreational activity, meaning animals—including, every year, family pets—suffer for fun. Meanwhile, the pelts a trapper does sell are probably adorning a fur coat worn by a rapper wannabe in some urban center far from Montana's high mountains."
Dee Baker has heard the criticism that trapping is purely about recreation. Almost no trappers in the state makes a living on trapping these days—market prices are far too low and, in general, modern activities and the modern lay of the land has changed its viability as a commercial activity.
But for Baker, it's the very fact that trapping is no longer highly commercialized that makes it valuable and viable. Fur booms of the past have taught him that large-scale competition, unchecked, can lead to disastrous consequences. Like a local foodie who prefers a community garden to industrial agriculture, Baker likes to see his fur kept small-scale and local.
Baker's history of trapping in the Seeley area backs up his views. When he arrived in Seeley in 1978 there was a strong commercial market for fur. That particular fur boom started in the 1960s and lasted through the early 1980s, with beaver pelts selling from $80 to $100 each. Seeley-Swan beaver pelts, says Baker, were considered some of the best quality at the North American Fur Auctions in Canada.
"This valley's famous for its furs, especially beaver," he says. "They are a rich, lustrous color, and when they go on commercial fur markets they're graded [on par] with Alaskan and Canadian beaver."
The fur boom brought trappers from Great Falls, Kalispell and other parts of the state to the valley, adding to the 20 or 30 trappers that already lived and worked there.
"The beavers just got hammered," Baker says. "They didn't get wiped out, but the population got low. At that point, the Montana Trapping Assoc-iation (MTA) stepped in and told Fish and Game that beaver were being over-harvested."
For five years, beaver season was closed. When FWP opened it again, only a limited number of beaver could be trapped. The new quota, coupled with a commercial market on a downslide, brought the beaver population back.
It's a bittersweet moment in history for trappers. A certain amount of greed and a certain lack of foresight endangered the species, but Baker says it was a lesson for local trappers to take leadership with issues of resource management.
"There have been a lot of instances like this in history where trappers as an organization have stepped in to protect resources," Baker says.
Baker grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee and graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in sociology. At the age of 32 he moved to Seeley and, at the suggestion of a friend, learned how to trap. He trapped commercially for 12 years, often heading on long ski trips into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It was a lifestyle with which he felt comfortable.
"I think growing up in a rural area on a farm your perception of animals can sometimes be quite different than people in an urban area," says Baker. "Your consciousness is formed from everyday relationships with animal populations. It's not formed by media or Walt Disney or Hollywood—and I'm not saying one is better than the other; I'm saying there's a real difference. If I came from a different place I might have thought trapping was a terrible way to kill an animal. But growing up where I did, that's not how I looked at it."
The Seeley-Swan has changed significantly over the past decade. The few residents like Baker who continue to trap have had to adjust to a population influx, to people living and recreating on land that had been untouched. With the influx, Baker says, came a change in attitude toward trapping.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Trappers who take trapping seriously say it’s a labor-intensive, time-consuming endeavor. “Trapping isn’t like hunting where you could go out for a few hours and then be done,” says David Cronenwett. “There are a lot more logistics.”
"There are people in the community now who don't look favorably at trapping—unless they have beavers eating trees in their yard or foxes eating their chickens," he says.
Instead of shrinking away from the change, Baker has embraced it by thinking locally. In 2001, he and his wife opened an artisan shop called The Grizzly Claw Trading Company, where he serves espresso, hosts literary readings by local writers, and sells the wares of 60 Montana artisans. Among the store's inventory is a small selection of fur pillows, fur hats and jewelry made from beaver teeth and claws. The fur comes directly from trap lines Baker's been working for over 30 years—with the exception of a few areas that are now subdivisions.
"It's a mixed blessing," he says. "I regret those places are so populated and, at the same time, it's hard to have a retail business when no one is coming through your door. I just hope the development is planned so that the wild spaces here stay wild."
David Cronenwett grew up in New Jersey and earned a music degree from Cornish College with an emphasis in classical guitar. Despite his urban beginning, Cronenwett's interest in natural history led him to rural Montana. In 2003, he founded the Wilderness Arts Institute, which offers courses in ethno-botany, birding, fire-starting and shelter-building, among other skills. He considers himself a naturalist first, and only an occasional trapper. When he traps, he hikes into the woods on foot or with snowshoes, setting traps and collecting the fur for personal use as clothing lining and outdoor accessories. But having spent time in both big cities and rural areas like the Yaak Valley and Choteau, he's thought a lot about the debate over contemporary trapping.
On his natural history blog called "A View From Aerie Mountain," Cronenwett usually writes about fire ecology, wind impacts, prairie islands and birds, often combining hard science with meditative thoughts on nature. But after watching the anti-trapping campaign begin to build last year, and sometimes finding himself on the defensive with guests at the Pine Butte Ranch, he decided to tackle the issue in a blog post he titled "On Trapping." In the post, he explores the way anti-trappers frame trapping in contrast to other activities like hunting, conservation support and dog walking.