Trapped in the Past
The game commission must stop ignoring public concerns about trapping.
New Mexicans are increasingly moving toward a consensus that foothold trapping of furbearer animals ought to be more closely regulated — if not mostly banned, as our neighbors in Arizona did in 1994. Unfortunately, at the same time the New Mexico State Game Commission has taken important steps in the opposite direction. Increasingly, the commission seems to serve only a tiny minority — only 1,921 furbearer licenses were sold for 2009-10. But more than 40,000 people hike in areas where traps could be set.
The latest evidence of an out-of-touch game commission came in July, when it ignored 12,000 public comments advocating a ban on trapping on public lands. Worse than ignored — the commission lifted a year-old ban on furbearer trapping in the Gila and Apache national forests that had been enacted to protect reintroduced Mexican gray wolves.
The point here isn't to revisit the emotional debate about wolf reintroduction. Rather, as the public is clamoring for tighter controls on trapping, the commission thumbed its nose at voters and did the opposite.
Silver City outdoorsman and former game commissioner Dutch Salmon had it right, we suspect, when he commented in the Sun-News, "If New Mexico had a referendum, trapping would be gone." Unfortunately, Salmon's voice of reason and insights into the balance between nature and those who find their sport in hunting, fishing and trapping will no longer be heard in Santa Fe. Gov. Susana Martinez abruptly removed Salmon and two other commissioners in March, even though Salmon still had nine months remaining on his term.
Last month, Animal Protection New Mexico and TrapFreeNM.org sponsored a public forum in Albuquerque to try to counter the game commission's intransigence on trapping regulation. An editorial in the Albuquerque Journal prior to the meeting likened trapping to cockfighting — "another subculture in New Mexico that justified its animal cruelty as a way of life." Just as the legislature finally banned cockfighting in 2007, the editorial concluded, it should put an end to trapping. The editorial brought a spate of letters in response — all even more vehemently anti-trapping.
It's easy for trapping advocates to dismiss such opinions and animal-lovers' meetings up in Albuquerque as the soft-hearted rantings of uninformed city folk. But in Desert Exposure's extensive past coverage of the trapping controversy, it's clear that even people who might think a ban goes too far ought to be concerned about New Mexico's lax trapping rules.
Unlike almost every sort of hunting, there's no bag limit on trapping furbearers. There's no limit on the number of traps an individual can set, as long as he can "make a visual inspection" every 24 hours. A trapping license costs just $20 for adult residents, less than half that for hunting deer or bear — and yet trapping activity is partly spurred by hopes of economic gain, increasing as pelt prices rise. Unlike hunting, the wildlife management aspect of trapping is an afterthought at best, driven by the fur market rather than by furbearer populations; until 2006, trappers in New Mexico weren't even required to report their catches (except for federally tracked bobcats).
Foothold traps must be placed more than a quarter-mile from an occupied dwelling (unless the occupant consents in writing) or an established public campground, roadside rest area, picnic area or boat launching area. Traps have to be more than 25 yards from any designated US Forest Service or BLM trail. Less-formal trails have no such protection, as we discovered to our surprise not long after moving to New Mexico, when a companion's dog got trapped as we were hiking Saddlerock Canyon.
Trappers will tell you how easy it is to open a trap and free a trapped pet — or its owner. That's because they know what they're doing. We've tried opening a 6 1/2-inch foothold trap — the maximum allowed — and trust me, it's not so easy for a tenderfoot. Trying to do it while a panicked dog is writhing in the trap would be a nightmare.
Don't even think, by the way, of moving or springing a trap you encounter along a favorite trail. A 1978 state law prohibits "intentionally affecting the condition or altering the placement of personal property used for the purpose of killing or taking a game animal, bird or fish" — even an illegally placed trap. The first offense is a petty misdemeanor, the second a misdemeanor.
The American Veterinary Medicine Association, the American Animal Hospital Association and the National Animal Control Association have all condemned foothold traps as "inhumane." Trapped animals, they say, suffer terror, exhaustion, exposure, frostbite, thirst, starvation and shock. The Wildlife Protection Network says, "Victims suffer excruciating pain and fear as they tear ligaments and break teeth in their struggle to free themselves…. Animals suffer lacerations, broken bones, joint dislocations and gangrene." The World Animal Foundation claims that up to a quarter of all trapped animals escape by chewing off their own foot. Free the Animals cites a study in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee that found 28% of mink, 24% of raccoons and 26% of trapped fox bit off their own limbs to escape.
And yet we understand that a case might be made for the practical necessity of continuing some carefully regulated trapping. We're not so naïve, for instance, as to flatly ban trapping of skunks that can infest houses. Trapping is also more effective than hunting for controlling animal-spread diseases such as rabies. In Colorado and Arizona, according to a national trappers' association, coyote populations have expanded since those trapping bans to cause millions of dollars in damage to sheep and cattle. Coyotes are also said to be hurting wildlife populations, such as antelope.
These are issues that need to be carefully considered by a game commission that weighs the input of wildlife experts, trappers and animal activists. Unfortunately for all concerned — especially New Mexico's furbearers — that doesn't seem to be on the agenda. Public opinion be damned, that's the message from the current game commission.
Trappers, too, ought to be concerned. Because as long as the game commission remains deaf to the opinions of the 99.9% of New Mexicans who don't trap, quashing even minimal reforms, the threat to their "way of life" that trappers most fear looms larger. Enlightened trappers and the game commission ought to consider steps to better align the rules with wildlife management and to minimize the interactions of non-trappers and their pets with traps, such as:
- Establish quotas on some species, such as bobcat, raccoon and fox. (Coyotes and skunks are so prolific that they don't need limits.) In 2007-08, for example, both bobcats and gray foxes were trapped in numbers that reached the "estimated sustainable harvest limit" range.
- Require a trailhead to be marked with a sign that traps are present.
- Increase the minimum distance for a trap from a trail to 50 feet.
- Limit the number of traps that a trapper can set in a season.
- Ban non-resident trapping. While this would represent a small blow to tourism, veteran outdoorsmen say non-residents come here to make a living off of trapping, setting hundreds of traps in an area, then moving on after they've caught most of the furbearers — very different from hobbyist trappers.
None of these reforms, of course, will suffice if you've concluded that trapping is simply cruel and inhumane and that it must be banned in a civilized society. Like the death penalty or abortion, for many New Mexicans this is an all-or-nothing issue.
Nonetheless, trappers and their game-commission allies need to understand that a similarly hard-line stand can't succeed when you're so in the minority. They need to be reasonable and take steps to better separate their activity from those who find it at best startling and at worst abhorrent.
Otherwise, if those who are supposed to be regulating trapping won't listen, eventually the political wheel in Santa Fe will turn and the legislature and a different governor will. That's when trapping will be finally banned in New Mexico. And its advocates will have only themselves to blame.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.