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Moles undermine middle ground

A skeptical Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, listens Monday to testimony about a bill that would allow people to use deadly
A skeptical Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, listens Monday to testimony about a bill that would allow people to use deadly "body-gripping" traps on moles. (Richard Roesler / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – In a recurring faceoff pitting urban and rural politicians against each other, some Puget Sound lawmakers want to allow the use of spring-loaded “body-gripping” traps to dispatch troublesome moles.

What’s stopping that now? A 7-year-old ballot measure targeting fur trappers with steel-jaw traps that inadvertently protects lawn-destroying pests and rodents as well.

Yet in a classic all-or-nothing standoff, rural lawmakers are insisting that the suburban critters remain protected unless the entire trapping measure is scrapped. While city dwellers fret about their lawns, rural residents are contending with damage to their herds, forests and fish.

“If we’re going to address the issue of trapping in the state of Washington, we need to address a comprehensive fix,” said Ed Owens, a lobbyist for dozens of hunting and fishing groups.

For years, urban lawmakers have tried to remove the protections for moles and gophers.

“I would venture to say they are far from an endangered species,” said Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5722.

Moles “invade our golf courses, our soccer fields,” said Dawn Vyvyan, a lobbyist for the state Recreation and Parks Association. “In Issaquah, apparently, they’re invading a cemetery.”

The mole amnesty – which covers gophers, too – stems from Initiative 713, which in 2000 banned the use of body-gripping traps to capture any mammal for fur commerce or for recreation. The measure was aimed at steel-jawed traps, said Jennifer Hillman, with the Humane Society of the United States, which spearheaded the initiative.

Common mouse and rat traps were exempted from the ban. But despite warnings from lawmakers and lawyers, the initiative didn’t include a similar exemption for mole and gopher traps.

“We felt it was clear from the intent of the initiative,” said Hillman. “Nobody was trapping moles and gophers for commerce or for fun.”

Nonetheless, an interpretation by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife held that the ban protected moles and gophers.

And so for several years now, the animal-rights group has been in the unaccustomed position of urging lawmakers to make it easier to kill certain kinds of animals. The group is willing to green-light the killing of mountain beaver in timber stands, to exempt small airports from the ban, and to extend permits to allow cattle ranchers and sheepherders to kill coyotes during calving season.

But because of the peculiar politics of the trapping standoff, rural lawmakers are in the equally unusual position of insisting, year after year, that moles and gophers be protected. Once animals are no longer burrowing through suburban lawns and golf courses, they reason, any statehouse momentum for a complete repeal of the ban will evaporate.

“A simple line-item fix for the molehill in the urban areas? Right now that issue of the molehill is what keeps the item alive for everybody,” said Jack Field, executive vice president of the state cattlemen’s association.

Owens said that the mole bill would do nothing to help people wrestling with flooding problems from beaver dams. It wouldn’t help sheep eviscerated by coyotes, he said, or fish farmers losing their profits to otters. Nor would it help address problem raccoons, mountain beaver or what Owens said is a mushrooming population of opossums.

“They’re ugly little critters,” he said of the opossums.

It’s unclear how the bill – or a similar House bill allowing trapping by airports – will fare. At Monday’s Senate hearing, committee chairman Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, was obviously unhappy with the initiative. He said the Humane Society of the United States was repeatedly warned that the measure would protect even moles.

“And they vigorously denied it,” he said.

Hillman said the woman who led the campaign no longer works for the group, and that the society has apologized to Jacobsen on her behalf. Hillman worries, however, that the bill will be amended to turn into a repeal of the entire ban.

She said the group is open to a wide variety of exemptions, so long as the original integrity of the initiative is upheld.

“People didn’t want a steel-jaw leg-hold trap being used to trap a fox to get a pelt to sell a coat,” she said. That sentiment hasn’t changed, she said.


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