It’s a walk I’ve taken hundreds of times, a trail that runs alongside the Big Flat irrigation ditch near the confluence of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers. My nephew, in his first year at college in Portland, is here for Thanksgiving, and we were wandering along the riverbank just off the trail, with our two dogs nosing about nearby. Suddenly there was an odd “thump” followed by frantic yelping. My dog Rontu, a sweet and shy Norwegian Elkhound, had gotten caught in a leg-hold trap.
I quickly realized that I knew nothing about such traps and didn’t immediately know how to release it. Rontu was thrashing around hysterically, biting the trap and biting my hands as I tried to hold him still so I could see how to open it. I told my nephew to go get help, as I figured at a minimum we’d be dealing with a broken leg.
After a couple of minutes I managed to calm the dog down, and I stared at the trap for a bit and figured out how the mechanism worked. I released it, and quickly carried the dog the short distance from the thicket to the trail. I put him down, and he ran off towards home. Remarkably, he seems to have no broken bones, only a serious sprain and an ugly memory.
It could easily have been much worse. If it had been our other dog, a little Schnauzer, who knows what would have happened. If Rontu had stuck his nose in the trap, rather than his foot, he’d be in bad shape indeed. And who on earth would put a trap in a spot that’s frequented not just by dogs and horses, but by people too? It wouldn’t have been a stretch for one of our kids to have stepped in it.
After we’d gotten back to the house and made sure Rontu was okay, we returned to the scene to investigate. We found the trap – and, incredibly, it had already been re-set. It was no more than 10 feet from the trail, and about 10 feet from the river, below the high-water mark. It was probably set for a beaver, or maybe a coyote, but there was no tag or identification on the trap. It’s not entirely clear whether the piece of ground in question belongs to our homeowners association or to the property owner next door, but hopefully I’ll be finding out more about that soon.
There’s a fierce debate about trapping in Montana, and especially whether it should be permitted on public lands. Honestly it is not an argument I have paid a lot of attention to one way or the other.
I will, however, say this: whatever the broader legal or ethical or moral issues, whoever set that trap definitely violated the one rule that’s crucial to any and all accommodations about how we inhabit the outdoors. That is, don’t be an asshole.
You don’t need to a dog-lover, or a PETA member, or even unappreciative of Montana traditions to believe that setting leg-hold traps next to trails frequented by people and their pets is nasty, selfish behavior. In this case it was almost certainly illegal too, as traps are required to have identification, and contrary to what some people seem to think the stream-access law does not allow trapping below the high-water mark unless you have permission of the landowner.
It’s a horrible shock to see your dog caught in a trap, and at a minimum I’d suggest dog-owners need to be sure they know how to release them. What the appropriate rules are for trapping is a question I’ll leave for another day.