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Hunting, in particular, has seen changes in perception over the last decade. Though extreme animal rights activists view killing any animal as egregious, many in Montana—including Footloose—view ethical hunting as an important part of the local food movement, and not antithetical to animal welfare. Trapping does not hold the same position of reverence.
Though Cronenwett doesn't equate the two activities, he questions whether it's a fair assessment to see them so differently.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- In the early 1980s, the late trapper and renowned conservationist Bud Moore all but predicated the debate when he told Fur, Fish and Game magazine that, while he personally felt trapping could still play a role in the modern landscape, it would ultimately be society at large that would determine whether it’s good or not, and whether it would continue.
"There is a strong message that hunting is good but trapping is bad," he wrote on the blog. "Apparently, there are some who believe that all hunts end with a quick and humane kill, but...there are some very ethical folks who have taken shots that unintentionally caused great suffering...Does this mean that hunting should be banned because accidents happen occasionally?"
Another comparison between hunting and trapping makes the point that a hunter eats the animal he kills, providing valuable sustenance. Most trappers don't eat the meat, but Cronenwett says that the money gained from pelts provides a need in the same way eating does. And just because a trapper doesn't eat his kill, it doesn't mean the meat's going to waste. Dee Baker, for instance, says he uses the flesh for bait, or leaves it for birds and other animals to eat.
"The carcass is recycled into trapping coyotes," explains Baker. "If I trap the coyotes, then it's been used. If I don't, then that meat gets recycled back into the animal kingdom."
Yet another comparison between hunting and trapping takes issue with the level of skill involved in trapping. Hunters take time to track an animal while, according to trapping critics, trappers simply set down traps and leave. Cronenwett says that just as unethical hunters will be sloppy in their work, an unethical trapper will do the same. But if you are an ethical trapper, 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 Cronenwett. "There are a lot more logistics. You need to get several sets out there in different locations, check your traps every day or every other day, and then go get them again. It's something that takes planning."
Cronenwett also takes issue with the idea that anti-trappers get so furious about trappers killing wildlife, but not with others who may make a larger, albeit less direct, impact. In "On Trapping" he compared a jet-setting corporate lawyer add what impacts are to a "local-rural-guy who supplements his income with some beaver trapping."
"It gets him outside locally and as such, is part recreation and provides a service to local ranchers who would like to hang on to some of their cottonwood trees...," he writes of the local. "While the attorney's impacts are unseen and unrecognized, they are significant. I am admittedly painting a simplistic example...but am doing so to illustrate the fact that these issues are complex..."
Cronenwett acknowledges one of the biggest marks against trapping is the issue of dogs getting hurt or killed in traps. He says it's, once again, a circumstance of unethical trapping. Trappers like him who have never had run-ins with dogs say that with adjustments in land use and more trapper education, the tradition could continue without public conflicts.
"As far as dogs ending up in traps," Cronenwett says, "that needs to be mitigated and I think there's room to compromise."
In fact, Cronenwett sees other areas where trappers and anti-trappers could find common ground. He wrote on his blog that trapping of "rare animals" like wolverines should be "halted immediately." The biting reaction he received from fellow trappers after that post, however, confirmed just how entrenched they are in their ways. It will take time for trappers to truly engage in an open dialog about the future of their work.
"My biggest beef with trapping is there is no ethical trapping movement," says Cronenwett. "Trappers need to step up and write about these issues, think about them...This discussion, this battle over trapping is important, because this is a place where it can still be done and it can be done well."
Numerous peer-reviewed studies show trapping on a local level can reduce the numbers in an immediate area and mitigate conflicts with land owners. For people like Joe Miller, experience backs up those studies. He is regularly allowed to trap coyotes sneaking onto ranches, or "damage beaver" that cause flooding and harm private property.
"Beaver will overpopulate and eat themselves out of house and home, and the [excess] will die by disease and starvation rather rapidly," he says. "And, in the process, they do so much damage."
Whether there's a study or not, when the coyotes stop showing up on a ranch for the calving season, his job is done.
Miller defines an "environmentalist" as someone who is a steward of the land. It wasn't that long ago—10 years or so, he says—that his definition would have been different—"some greenie, tree-hugger down in Missoula." His role as a trapper has brought him face-to-face with those tree-huggers, and it used to be something he despised.
But in 2003, Miller was asked by the Montana Trapping Association to talk with a group of college students about trapping at Northwest Connections—a nonprofit founded by UM environmental studies grad and executive director Melanie Parker, her husband, conservation specialist Tom Parker, and Bud Moore. At first he was uncomfortable speaking to a crowd of people who likely held anti-trapping views. After the first talk, however, his view changed.
"I just immediately fell in love with it," says Miller. "It forced me to think outside the box."
Miller's talks usually focus on his time spent on ranches like the Union Creek Ranch in the Potomac Valley, where he traps coyotes. The ranchers tell Miller that, though they lose some animals to direct coyote predation, they lose even more during calving season when stressed heifers sense coyotes on the perimeter.
"If you take coyotes out, more will come in," Miller says. "You're not trying to eradicate the population, you're trying to reduce the impact via trapping."
First, he reduces the population in the immediate vicinity and then creates a barrier by trapping around the perimeter.
"Coyotes are incredibly smart animals," says Miller. "The risk is not worth the reward: They're that savvy. There's still the ebb and flow of coyotes from the Garnets in the big picture. But the felt impact at the ranch is noticeably lessened."
Serious trappers like Miller put enormous efforts into trapping. For his coyote work, Miller spends three months out of the year prepping equipment and scouting out areas before he ever sets a single trap. Last year he scouted out a potential line that took him from ranches in Seeley through the Potomac Valley, across the Garnets to Bearmouth and up to Drummond. When he did set up the trap line—about 100 traps in all—he ran it on rotation so he could check the traps within 48 hours.
- Photo courtesy of Simon Williams
- David Cronenwett usually writes about natural history, but after watching the anti-trapping campaign build last year, he decided to take on the anti-trapping criticism. “My biggest beef with trapping is there is no ethical trapping movement,” says Cronenwett. “Trappers need to step up and write about these issues.”
"That's what I could handle," he says. "If I had more than that I felt like my work would get sloppy."
That's not to say his trapping has been perfect. As with hunting, accidents happen. Over the course of five years Miller admits he's accidentally snared two deer—one of which was released safely. The other one ran into the trap when a logging project sprang up nearby. Though Miller had scouted out deer routes beforehand, the unanticipated logging project funneled the herd toward his trap line.
"I felt really bad about it," he says. "I really sat back and thought twice about ever snaring again, but I continued to because most of it I can predict."