Vote no on Montana ballot initiative 177

Four years ago, while volunteering for the park service, a friend and I had an encounter with the ugly side of trapping. We had forded a river in waders and were slogging up a dry side channel, to find a tree for stashing said waders and ideally enough snow to immediately click into skis. In full posthole slog mode, with a heavy load of skis, overnight gear, and bait (read: frozen deer parts) in my pack I could be forgiven for not seeing the mountain lion until we were within 20 yards. It was tucked up under a pine above the cutbank, and my first thought was to wonder why it had not yet charged us. Then I noticed the chain in the snow, which ran in one direction to a 10 foot log, and in the other to a leghold trap on the lions leg. It had enough chain to easily reach us, but under the circumstances was understandably sedate. We got on the radio and called in the cavalry, who long after we proceeded up-drainage to our objective tranquilizes, collared, checked, weighed, and released the lion, unharmed.

On that particular river the park boundary starts at the high water mark, so flood zones on the park side, like where we had been walking, were national forest and thus technically legal for hunting and trapping. The lion had dragged itself and the trap up into the park, introducing a legal complication. I was later told that the trap did not have the owners name and phone number, a clear violation of state law and one supposes an admission of the traps placement in a legally dicey location. All of which is to say that it is easy to see why the general, non-hunting public is not so keen on trapping, and why Montana Initiative 177, which would ban trapping on all public land, gathered over 33,000 signatures and made it on to the ballot.

I think it is a bad initiative, and plan to vote against it.
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In the first place, it’s a bad initiative because it is over broad.  Leghold traps, like the one used in my lion encounter, are non-lethal and potentially cruel.  The larger predators such traps generally target can indeed cause the victims to chew or twist their paw off to escape, which is why Montana law mandates frequent checking of traps, and personal information on all traps placed.  Other traps, such as body-grippers used on beaver and muskrat, are generally lethal immediately or in short order.  Being in general about as humane as bowhunting, this side of trapping deflates the cruelty argument against trapping, as well as the trapped pet argument.  Other trapping methods, such as snaring, get similar broad-brush treatment.

The text of the initiative admits another weakness bold face, by stating that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will be able to trap for predator control purposes and that”…the state will incur other costs associated with monitoring wolf populations and hiring additional full time employees…”  I have serious problems with wolf hunting in Montana, but none of my objections have to do with the wolf population being able to withstanding hunting and trapping.  While there is little reason to suppose that hunting and trapping of predators like wolves and mountain lions will shape their populations more forcefully than prey availability, there is equally little reason to think that allowing predation will not ease conflict between two-legs and four, for many reasons.  Plainly put, if trappers cannot contribute to predator management, social factors will probably oblige the state to do so in their stead.

Last is the slippery slope objection, articulated here by Steven Rinella.  I don’t like how easily this line of reasoning fall into culture wars and conspiracy, but at the same time have little patience with the naive, overly sentimental view of wildlife the trapping ban would seem to endorse.  The trapped animals implicitly targeted by the ban tend to be more cute, noble, and sympathetic than most, and it is difficult to not think that this is most of the story.  Few people are lamenting the horrible fate of trapped rodents.

As for the keep our dogs safe argument, I call poppycock.  The statistics for pets trapped annually are minute (8-15 per year, depending on who is talking), and existing regulations mandate traps be quite far enough from trails and roads.  If your pet is impulsive or dumb, keep it on a leash, or better yet train it properly in the first place.

More than anything the very presence of I-177 on the ballot should point hunters and trappers at exactly where they are failing to get through to the general public, a failure which left to long unfixed might just well result in further hunting restrictions, and even less general sympathy and support.  If that comes to pass pity will be hard to come by.

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12 thoughts on “Vote no on Montana ballot initiative 177

  1. While trapping can be ugly, (though I’m pretty sure no one would intentionally try to catch a lion in a leghold; it’s not legal or effective) banning trapping ends up uglier. The government will be forced to poison predators or shoot wolves from helicopter’s ect. because the alternative is worse. They’ve had to resort to poisoning wolves in Alberta (killing lots of other predators and scavengers while they’re at it) recently to save a Woodland Caribou herd. The elk and whitetail populations (which were never native here) have ballooned to the point where they can support a lot of predators, but unfortunately, the Caribou are easier pickings and are the first to get munched. We have a wolf bounty in our area of $300 each because we’ve created so much food for ungulates that there’s more wolves and cougars on the fringes of the farmland than in the bush. It’s easy to say “let nature balance itself out” but no one likes to see animals die of starvation and disease and unless we remove ourselves from the picture, we can’t really just let it be. Starving wildlife causes problems for people, whether its moose or wolves.

    1. Whitetails aren’t native to BC? Would have thought they had always been lurking around in the valleys at least, but they are adaptable little buggers.

      Rinella did a podcast recently explaining the pop dynamics of woodland caribou in the lower 48. A good listen.

      1. I live in Northern Alberta. They’ve been in Alberta for a long time, but not in the Peace Country until recently, but they’re more aggressive than Mule Deer (here anyways) and will displace them and hybridise if they get the chance.They’re all the way up in the Yukon and NWT now, having followed the corridors or farmland and highways. Can’t find the podcast; any chance you have a link, date or episdoe number?

    2. The woodland caribou is going to go extinct no matter what due to climate change and habitat loss — and they damn well stay out of the farmland zone, so they would not be affect by extra predators concentrating on the deer and elks attracted by farms (though planting new trees to replace old growth forest that has been cut down will attract more prey and predators, negatively affecting caribou). We might save everybody a lot of trouble and aggravation by catching them all and putting them in a zoo. We’d also be saving the taxpayer a lot of money that way, and not go down the well of poorly though out management interventions (300 bucks of taxpayer money for a wolf? are we seriously kidding here?)

      1. Which population of Woodland Caribou are you referring too? The small handful in the US? There are more than a million Woodland Caribou in Canada, so no need for a zoo yet. In the threatened populations in the southern Rockies, the main problem is that disturbing the habitat with roads/cutlines/trails makes it easier for the wolves to hunt caribou. That’s why in Jasper etc they close many trails in winter to make it less convenient for the wolves. The wolf poisoning is to protect the AB5 Little Smoky Herd which is in danger because of all the habitat being disturbed by oil and gas activity. Usually the way that woodland caribou survive in this area is by isolating themselves from moose and deer (and therefore wolves) by living on lichen, in the muskeg or alpine. Since 2005 the Alberta government has been culling wolves, up to a hundred a year, in order to save this small herd of caribou. But it’s not working. Wolf culls generally don’t work very well, because when you destabilise the pack social structure (by killing Alphas) it results in more pups being reared. So as long as there is lots to eat, killing wolves doesn’t hurt the population too much. What wolf hunting and trapping does do–and this is why there is a wolf bounty in our area (which is in farmland and has no caribou, but lots of elk and deer)–is keeps livestock predation down. Livestock predation is reduced not so much by shrinking the general wolf population, but incentivizing people to shoot them when they’re wandering around the farmland. I’ve had wolves 10 yards from my front door in broad daylight and have had to dodge them on the road coming down the hill from my driveway. The bounty is offered by the municipality, because it is cheaper and easy than getting into the predator control business themselves. Just in our municipal district, which only has a human population of 5000 or so people, there are 200-400 wolves turned in a year.

        1. Let’s be real and let’s be adults here: there is no such thing as small populations of woodland caribou, these are part of a whole that got broken up. Let’s be practical and just eat them, rather than wasting time and money on fragments of a larger population that is (and I take your word for it) perfectly fine. Livestock predation is kept down by proper livestock management not by bounties on wolves (i.e. get proper guard dogs, electric fencing and all that. It works. Does it cost money and time? sure, but who cares? Alberta livestock exists because of subsidies anyway). Bounties are used because (1) people are too lazy to implement proper management and (2) because it buys votes. As a taxpayer I’d put a bounty on politicians and farmers, it would work out cheaper very quickly. If I sound like I hate farmers is because I do (rural upbringing here btw).

  2. this isn’t the first time this ballot measure has come up, likely not the last

    I’ve talked with other game wardens in states where partial bans were enacted; it wasn’t a pretty situation

    the department has done a lot in the last ten years in the way of tightening up trapping regulations to reduce potential conflicts and my guess more to come

  3. Dave, I am a breeder, trainer and handler of Deutsch Kurzhaar dogs. My dogs are highly trained to assist the hunter in procuring game. They search, point, retrieve, recover wounded game, blood track wounded big game, destroy smaller predators. They are well trained. I’m very serious about it.

    2 years ago one of my dogs stepped in a leg hold trap intended for a bobcat. The only warning was a little feather dangling in the breeze. The location was on public (BLM) land several miles north of Pompeys Pillar. We have hunted there for years. There was no contact info on the trap. No sign or marking to warn me. If there was I would have sued the bastard. I did not report the incident. I kept the trap. I was not doing anything irresponsible. To the contrary.

    There is nothing benevolent going on here. We don’t have a bobcat problem. Not too many, not too few. Just personal consumption for which each of us is responsible. I’m retired and spend a lot of time in the woods. I see maybe a couple cats per year. Most people never see one. The reality is a couple trapped bobcats here or there are not going to make a difference in our game management.

    But the $4,000 vet bill to save my dogs leg made a difference to this old man living on a fixed income. All so some clown could make a couple bucks on public land. If I do something that hurts someone else, even if it is legal, I need to make it right. That’s just common human decency. But too many of these “enthusiasts” hide behind the law. We already have laws on the books to reduce the likelihood of what happened to me. They are ineffective. The MTFWP is not capable of the type of micro-management necessary to properly regulate trapping on public land.

    I’m voting for 177.

    1. This is a great example of why good behavior is important for the continuation of certain outdoor activities. One asshole has now caused an experience that has the potential to negatively impact every trapper in Montana.

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