Anyone who has lost a canine companion knows a special brand of heartbreak. Our best friends, even when they exit our lives gently, leave us with monumental grief in the wake of their passing.
But not all exits are timely or gentle. The recent death of a border collie-cross in a trap intended for beaver hammers home this point: a casual stroll on public land can have horrific and deadly consequences; traps are nearly anywhere and everywhere on Montana’s citizen-owned land. Cupcake’s brief life ended along Rock Creek near Valley of the Moon, a popular Forest Service recreation site southeast of Missoula where trails, interpretive signs, and fishing access attract people and their dogs.
There is no consolation in the idea that Cupcake was a “non-target” victim of an illegally-set trap and a fate meant for another sentient, albeit wild, creature. The dog was killed by a Conibear trap (named for its developer), a body-gripping device designed to crush and/or suffocate. When used for beaver, the trap is typically set under water and the animal drowns. The jaws, which spring shut with enormous pressure (90 lbs. per square inch for a beaver trap), are virtually impossible to open with one’s hands alone.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), the state agency that regulates trapping, also champions trapping. In “Maintaining a Buckskin Lifestyle in a Polar Fleece World,” Tom Dickson, editor of FWP’s Montana Outdoors magazine, attempts to borrow cachet for today’s trappers with historical and romantic allusions to Native Americans, Lewis and Clark, and mountain man heritage. There’s little romance involved, however, for citizens enjoying their public land when a much-loved dog is caught in a snare—a wire noose trap that tightens as the animal struggles—as happened earlier this year at Lee Creek, a heavily-used Forest Service cross-country ski and snowshoe destination 26.5 miles west of Lolo on U.S. 12.
Nor has the Bitterroot been immune to canine trapping tragedies. A Conibear death occurred in the Bitterroot National Forest’s Bear Creek drainage when Annie followed the wrong scent. Like Cupcake, she died as her frantic human attempted and failed to wrest open the deadly jaws. In 2005, a trapper shot a companion dog he found caught in his trap in the valley. Elsewhere, in the Ninemile Valley alone, six dogs have been trapped in recent years.
Public outrage over the Conibear death of Buddy (again, on public land) in the Flathead nearly ten years ago forced an improvement in trapping regulations, but after protests from trappers, the FWP Commission now requires that ground snares and traps be set back only 300 feet from trailheads and 50 feet from roads and trails on our public lands.
It’s worth noting that even these lax regulations are limited in scope. Only the so-called “furbearers”—beavers, mink, bobcats, etc.—are managed by FWP and require a trapping license. “Also trapped, though with no license requirement,” according to Dickson, “are badgers, raccoons, and red foxes (classified as nongame wildlife), as well as coyotes, weasels, and skunks (classified as predators).” Public land setbacks from roads, trails, and trailheads don’t apply to this latter, unlicensed group, nor are these trappers required to take trapper education. Montana trappers aren’t even required to check their traps within a mandatory timeframe—a “should” rather than a “must” makes it a suggestion only: “Traps should be checked at least once every 48 hours. It is the trapper’s responsibility to check his/her traps regularly.” (2006 Montana Trapping and Hunting Regulations. )
Fathom this: forty-eight hours—or more—alone in a trap. Terror, pain, thirst, blood-loss, hypothermia. The untold suffering a trapped animal experiences makes instant death seem like mercy. Yet Conibears frequently trap their victims in a manner resulting not in immediate death, but, like a leghold trap, with a period of extended suffering before the animal dies or is dispatched by the trapper. Who would wish this upon a domestic dog…or a wild coyote? Upon a companion cat…or a wild bobcat? Upon bald eagles and owls and other unfortunate “collateral damage”?
Next time you venture out on your vast and spectacular (and taxpayer-funded) federal public land, perhaps you’ll find it necessary to leave your peace of mind at home, particularly if a dog accompanies you. You’ll remember that traps might lie in wait, baited with enticing meat or hidden beneath the water’s surface, and that life and limb are jeopardized by the concealed menaces littering our wild and not-so-wild landscape.
Or maybe you’ll just remember Buddy, Annie, and Cupcake, non-target victims who didn’t return home alive with their grieving humans. Perhaps a carefree day wandering your public land with your best friend won’t seem like such a good idea after all.
Montana FWP trapping regs: http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/trapping/default.html
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