By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily
Nothing quite embodies the American frontier like the image of a fur-clad trapper hauling his year’s take down a mountain trail on the back of his trusty mule.
After the West was won, however, trapping fell by the wayside, despite being a useful method of wildlife management.
“Trapping is a great tool we use as an agency to remove damage animals or prevent urban wildlife conflicts or even conflicts between humans and wildlife,” said Jason Sherwood, a Wyoming Game and Fish senior game warden. “The wildlife of Wyoming belong to all the people in the state, and we’re the caretaker of that. We manage the wildlife as a trust.”
Not everyone agrees, however. Wyoming Untrapped is a non-profit organization based in Jackson, and it operates on the idea trapping practices in Wyoming should be reformed.
“There are non-lethal ways to mitigate beaver damage,” said Aska Langman, the executive director for Wyoming Untrapped. “Trapping is a very short-minded solution to destructive wildlife behavior.”
For Jim Pearce, the Wyoming State Trappers Association southeastern director, trapping provides a connection with the outdoors.
“It gets me out,” Pearce said. “I’m always learning when I’m out there, and isn’t that the point of life? I love to watch the wildlife. You always see something new.”
The L.A. Times reported California trappers are calling it quits, in part because of social pressure and regulation changes.
But in Wyoming, Pearce said the biggest threat to the sport is disinterested youth.
“Our numbers have decreased substantially,” he explained. “We just don’t have the young people coming around that we used to.”
A cruel trade?
The primary argument against trapping for groups like Wyoming Untrapped is a perception of cruelty.
“One of the focuses of our reform is changing the regulation of checking traps every 72 hours to (checking) every 24 hours,” Langman said. “There’s generally less suffering if they check them more often.”
Washington, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado require trappers to check traps every 24 hours, according to The Humane Society of the United States. If the goal of trapping is to harvest animals, Langman said she believes there are more ethical methods.
“We hunt in my family, to fill the freezer and whatnot,” she said. “But we don’t aim to maim an elk and let it go wander off and never claim the carcass. With trapping, we’d just like it to be a little bit more of a humane situation.”
Founded in 2014, Wyoming Untrapped operates primarily on private donations.
“We’re a small, grassroots operation — I’m the only paid employee,” Langman said. “We started out mainly because of people’s dogs getting caught in traps.”
The organization’s website states at least 52 dogs have been caught in traps in Wyoming since 2000, or approximately 3 dogs a year. Langman said those numbers are not complete, however.
“There’s no mandatory reporting for trapping,” she said. “That’s another thing the organization would like reformed, mandatory reporting for trapping numbers.”
Sherwood said the Game and Fish Department does enforce reporting requirements for non-target animals caught in traps, but pets are outside the agency’s jurisdiction.
For now, Langman said Wyoming Untrapped would like to see traps checked more frequently, the adoption of stricter reporting requirements and mandatory signage for trapping areas.
“Putting up signs around areas where traps might be could really help reduce the public safety risk,” she said. “I think there will always be trapping in Wyoming — I mean it’s a constitutional right. So short of changing the constitution of Wyoming, I don’t think it’s going away.”
A lifelong trapper, Pearce said he’s dealt with anti-trapping sentiments for decades.
“Cruelty is their biggest platform,” he said. “That’s what they like to perpetuate.”
Wildlife agencies and the National Trappers Association listened. In 1996, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies began a $40 million research project to develop best management practices for regulated trapping.
Created by a team of wildlife biologists, the practices outline trapping techniques, preferred styles of traps and trap placement.
“Best management practices can be both recommendations and built into regulations,” Sherwood said. “A lot of trappers understand that if they don’t use these practices, then something horrible could happen, which will likely attract media attention and be detrimental to the trade.”
With the practices in place, Pearce said trappers try to work in harmony with the non-trapping public, which shares the same public spaces.
Pearce said he regularly hosts seminars about how to remove pets from traps when accidents occur. He also works as a liaison for the Game and Fish Department, advising the agency and its partners about using both live and lethal trapping to mitigate wildlife damage.
“People ask me, ‘Why do you do it, Jim?’” Pearce said. “Half the people I talk to have never seen a beaver. They don’t have an inkling the amount of damage a colony can wreak on an irrigation system.”
Years ago, Pearce would visit elementary schools and give wildlife biology seminars to children.
“Now, the schools won’t even talk to you,” he said.
Reading Jack London and other outdoor adventure stories as a kid inspired Pearce to become a trapper, but in today’s society, he said he doesn’t see anything driving young people toward the outdoors.
“Every year, our numbers dwindle,” he said. “The convention/rendezvous circuit has done a bit to rejuvenate our ranks, but I don’t think it will be enough.”
Without trappers, Sherwood said wildlife management agencies could be hard pressed to find financially viable replacement methods.
“The regulated capture and removal of those animals, which are often members of the rodent family or similarly reproduce very rapidly, helps us maintain those populations without major peaks and swings,” he explained. “With trapping, it’s more of a subtle change — ebb and flow of populations — preventing the massive buildups and die offs that can be detrimental to an area’s ecology.”