Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Montana Wolf Trap

Update: The Montana FWP Commission approved the new regulations as proposed in a unanimous vote (one member abstained for reasons that weren’t given). They are to be commended for not bowing to pressure from a vocal minority.

One important item that deserves attention is found at the end of the article, where a member of the Montana Trapping Association warned about the importance of proper training and education. As the thoughts below indicate, exempting wolves from trapping on the basis of it being “barbaric” would be harmful to trapping in general in Montana.

At the same time, this is not a place for inexperienced amateurs to decide to give wolf-trapping a whirl. Trapping is a skill and an art that one must be taught. Poor trapping practices on the part of wolf trappers could also harm trapping in Montana, and we don’t need that.


Where would Montana politics be without a little lupine-driven controversy? According to an article in this week’s Billings Gazette, the proposed guidelines for this year’s wolf season have generated 6500 comments, compared to last year’s 1500. Driving the added interest this year is that trapping has been added to the wolf control arsenal.

In spite of the fact that Montana hunters were unable to reach last year’s quota of 220 wolf kills, and in spite of the fact that Montana’s wolf population has more than doubled in the last 7 years, there are still those who are protesting the hunts as “too extreme.” According to an article some time back in the Billings Gazette, some of those at a public meeting on wolf hunting and trapping believe that all trapping is “inhumane and uncivilized,” while the more recent Gazette article notes that opponents called trapping “cruel and morally wrong." Commenters at the public meeting also protested that Montana wolf trappers would only have to check their traps every 48 hours, whereas government trappers reportedly check theirs at least once a day.

Perhaps they would do well to review state furbearer regulations, in which 48 hours monitoring is the standard for all trapping in Montana -- why would the regulations for trapping wolves be any different from that used for trapping mink or bobcats? Furthermore, government trappers can carry on their business without regard to cost, since they are on salary. Almost certainly, if the protesters would like to pay private Montana trappers to check their traps twice as often as currently required, they would likely be more than happy to oblige. Perhaps those at the meeting would like to start a foundation and contribute their own money?

It goes without saying that trapping seems uncivilized to many in today’s urbanized world, but given that it has probably been practiced in every civilization since the time that word became a concept, we would point out that what is “civilized” is a relative concept, something any good multiculturalist would understand. Some of the same people who consider trapping barbaric probably also consider aborting humans to be a normal part of civilized life, just as it once was during a pre-Christian Roman civilization. One can be quite certain that not too far in the future, there will be civilized folks who look at the tics and spasms of 21st century first world behavior and wonder what on earth we were thinking and doing about this or that.

My father, like others who grew up during the Great Depression, was dirt poor. He loved music and wanted badly to buy a guitar, and there weren't many ways for a kid to earn money. So he trapped skunks, which were in plentiful supply and for which there was a market. It was worth dealing with the smell to trap and skin them, earning two bits a piece for each pelt, as I recall. He finally got enough money together that he could buy a cheap mail-order guitar -- the same one on which I learned to play my first chords, and which still hangs on the wall at the ranch.

While it is now about 35 years ago, I also remember trapping (for me, it was red fox) while a kid to make some spare cash myself, using the money to buy my first shotgun. Trapping was a part of rural life, just as it is for many trappers in Montana today. If there was such a thing as a license, I never heard of anyone ever getting one. Anything we trapped on the high plains was by law a predator or a varmint, so I doubt anyone would have cared.

I met a girl a few years ago who earned spending money by trapping along the Yellowstone River in Eastern Montana. At some point, I realized that I was probably one of the few “city-folk” she had met who understood the pride she took in having learned to trap from her father, just as I had learned from mine. I understood the pride she took in her work and in the degree of self-sufficiency she earned from selling the fur. It was only when I spoke of my own youthful trapping days that she started to open up and talk about it, and I saw her face light up as she talked animatedly about her love of tramping through the woods along the river, checking her trap line.

I also realized how long it had been since I myself had talked to someone to whom I could confess my secret past life as a (short-lived and not particularly skilled) amateur trapper, let alone someone who would understand that particular call of the wild (think Swiftwater.) I have no interest in trapping today and frankly I am now citified enough that unlike a 10 or 12 year-old me, I would now probably get a little queasy at the sight of an animal in a trap I had set, but I wouldn’t want to deny the experience or the income to anyone. Certainly I utterly reject the idea that trapping livestock predators is barbaric and unacceptable.

We are unlikely to see wolf supporters offer to pay the expenses of civilian trappers for checking traps daily, and even if they did, such offers would likely end up the same as promises by environmentalist groups to reimburse stockmen for livestock losses due to wolf predation. Those quickly vanished into the thin air of empty promises, as we knew they would once the wolf proponents got what they wanted. Back in the old days, such things were given a much simpler name: lies.

A little honesty would be appreciated on these matters, but we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for it. The agenda is not that the opponents are fine with traps checked every 24 hours but scandalized with those checked every 48. It isn’t that it is fine with them to have 100 wolves harvested but not 200. The point is rather to throw up every possible roadblock to the control of wolf populations. If Montana is able to come up with a hunting and trapping plan that will actually keep wolf numbers down to a reasonable, self-sustaining population level with wolves that are largely restricted to wilderness areas, that would be a terrible blow to what wolf proponents seem actually to want, which is an ever-expanding population of wolves with an ever-expanding range.

Many of us who opposed wolf reintroduction did so not because we had any desire to see wolves go extinct (which given the Alaskan and Canadian populations wasn’t going to happen anyway) but because we knew that regardless of promises, wolf proponents would fight tooth and nail against controlling wolf numbers and against the right of ranchers to protect their livestock and to be made whole for their losses. We have not been wrong.

Wolves have proven themselves to be very resilient and aggressive, which comes as no surprise to the descendants of those who originally spent decades working to eliminate them as threats to their livestock and the civilization that livestock represented. What is becoming clear is that even with hunting seasons set as they were last year, wolf numbers are going to continue to grow rapidly. The numbers of wolves allowed to be harvested is already below what is needed to keep populations static -- hampering hunting and trapping to a degree that quotas can’t be filled will only make the situation worse.

While there are probably ranchers who want wolves completely eradicated from Montana, I haven’t met any. It is, truth to be told, kind of nice to have wolves in our wild places again. What is desirable, however, is for wolf numbers to be kept to a minimum and in wilderness areas. Achieving such goals requires flexibility in hunting and trapping, and this week’s Gazette article notes that Idaho has done a much better job at this than has Montana, although the FWP seems to be making a good faith effort to come up with guidelines that will result in a larger wolf harvest. Aggressive hunting combined with freeing up ranchers to shoot wolves on sight would make it more likely that packs will stay in wilderness areas and that they will associate populated areas with danger. Speaking of aggressive hunting, legalize wolf-hunting with Borzoi or Irish Wolfhounds, anyone?

Those who want ranchers to have the ability to protect their livestock effectively from predation and those who want elk hunting to remain a Montana tradition need to be prepared for this struggle to continue. If wolf populations and the range they cover continue to grow in spite of new hunting and trapping regulations, as we suspect they will, Montana’s wolf quota will need to increase significantly, and regulations will again need to be adjusted to make sure those quotas are met. The FWP is having another meeting Thursday, July 12, so now is the time to make one’s voice heard.

Montanans need to understand that opposition to trapping wolves is at this point just a surrogate for opposing the control of wolf numbers. If the FWP is pressured into dropping the trapping provisions, furthermore, there is no logical reason why all trapping in Montana won’t be on the chopping block next. It’s sort of a wolf trap... trap.


Ed Kemmick said...

I want to like trapping, too, but I'm not sure argument by nostalgia is all that is needed here. You never addressed the question of morality raised by opponents of trapping.

Under what circumstances is it morally right to subject another creature to prolonged agony? Let's turn your argument around: If two days is OK, why not three or four days between checks? Is it OK to trap a predator but not merely to procure a pelt? How about man traps, which landowners in ancient times felt fully justified in using? At least human trespassers knew the risks and the consequences.

And yes, notions of what is barbaric and wrong do change, and maybe in our modern world they change more quickly than in the past, as everything else seems to be doing.

It would be hard to justify, say, slavery on the grounds that your dear old pappy was a slaveholder, or to argue for the continuation of transporting thieves to Australia because it was a fine old tradition. Do you want to be the last person supporting a particular strain of barbarism?

Was the notion of loving your neighbor as you love yourself an idea whose time had come, or did a certain prominent exponent of that idea decide to get out ahead of public opinion?

Brad Anderson said...

Not only is nostalgia not a sufficient argument, it really isn't an argument at all, and I didn't intend for it to be -- if it seemed like it was, then to that extent I failed as a writer.

I had intended for the primary point to be that wolf numbers need to be controlled and that current regulations are not controlling them. Based on my experience with coyotes and the historical experience with wolves, I would be surprised if control can be achieved without trapping. The topography is rough and the most destructive wolves will tend to be clever enough to evade hunters.

My intent in talking about the 24 vs 48 hours was not to advocate for 48 hours (I was taught to check traps at least once a day,) but rather to point out that trapping has been legal since before statehood and is regulated by Montana law. There is nothing about wolves that should give them special regulations or exempt them if FWP determines that there are sufficient numbers to justify trapping.

As to the personal anecdotes, they were in response to what I felt was emotional, demonizing language from wolf proponents -- my intent was to respond with a gentle attempt at humanizing those of us who have ever trapped.

A red fox in 1973 brought about $35 to $50, or roughly $150 to $250 in today's dollars. I don't know what modern prices are, but I would assume that trappers wouldn't trap if it didn't put food on the table, and the FWP wouldn't allow it if they were endangering furbearing populations. I'd be curious to know how many who showed up to oppose trapping have nice comfy desk jobs with generous benefit packages and retirement plans and have never had to do something as strenuous as hiking a trapline (or working to keep livestock fed and alive) in winter to earn money.

With all of the other forms of cruelty that go on in the world, and all of the dishonest and destructive ways that people make money, eliminating trapping would be pretty far down my list of moral concerns.

There's an extent to which I am acutely aware that people who trap are unlikely to be spending much time as political blog-writers. If someone like me isn't willing to stand beside them during a debate like this, I really don't know who will.