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.

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.