Gov. Greg Gianforte made national headlines recently after it was revealed that he illegally trapped and killed a radio-collared Yellowstone National Park wolf in February just 10 miles north of the park’s boundary, after failing to take a mandatory trapping class.
Meanwhile, Montana legislators are clamoring to advance a series of bills (widely expected to be signed by Gianforte) that would liberalize wolf killing and weaken or remove existing trapping laws.
One bill passed by the House Monday is HB 367, which is sponsored by another trapper, Rep. Paul Fielder. The legislation seeks to amend the Montana Constitution to make trapping (along with hunting and fishing) a constitutional right. It also attempts to prioritize trapping over important wildlife management practices such as protecting sensitive species and conserving habitat. If passed by two-thirds of the Legislature, the amendment would be submitted for voter approval as a ballot question next year.
Trapping in Montana needs sensible reform, not constitutional protection. Virtually no state regulations apply to the annual trapping and killing of tens of thousands of predator and nongame species such as coyotes, foxes and badgers. Trappers can catch and kill as many of these animals as they want, at any time of the year, without having to purchase a license. If trappers claim to be protecting livestock, they are completely exempt from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) trapping regulations. Even for species that require a license, such as wolves, beavers and mink, trapping seasons stretch for months and there are no statewide quotas.
In addition, Montana is one of the only states in the country that does not require trappers to check their traps regularly (apart from those set for wolves and, in some areas, bobcats). Nearly every other state that allows recreational trapping mandates that most traps and snares be regularly inspected — usually once a day, as recommended by wildlife professionals.
Frequent trap checks are important, both to reduce intense animal suffering and to increase the chances that an unintentionally captured animal can be released without serious injury. According to FWP’s most recent data, between 2012 and 2017, traps and snares accidentally caught 349 animals, including 148 dogs and 99 mountain lions. Seven of the dogs and 67 of the mountain lions died. These are just the incidents reported to FWP.
Even Montana’s setback requirements, which prohibit traps and snares within a certain distance of public roads or trails to protect people and pets, only apply to traps set on the ground. These regulations fail to account for traps set in nearby streams or ponds within easy reach of a thirsty dog.
Importantly, trapping in Montana is a predominantly recreational activity, not a livelihood. Nearly two-thirds of state trappers surveyed in 2015 by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies responded that trapping was “not at all important” as a source of income.
Further, trapping causes intense suffering and has an outsized impact on wildlife. In 2016, about 1,600 active trappers reported taking an estimated 30,000 animals, according to FWP’s most recent statistics. The total number of animals killed was likely higher, because no reporting requirements exist for many trapped species.
Thus, HB 367 is an effort to prioritize the recreational interests of a tiny fraction of Montanans over those of the majority who enjoy seeing these animals alive and recreating without fear that their dogs will be caught in traps.
When Montana’s highest official ignores one of the state’s most basic trapping laws, we must demand increased enforcement and scrutiny, not try to enshrine trapping in the Constitution and further insulate it from reasonable regulation. To respectfully urge your legislators to vote “no” on this bill, please visit https://awionline.org/compassion-index#/364.
Zack Strong is a lifelong Montanan and senior staff attorney with the Animal Welfare Institute. He is based in Bozeman.