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Sports >  Outdoors

Would signs near Idaho wildlife traps incite harassment of trappers or protect dogs?

UPDATED: Wed., May 13, 2020

As she cross-country skied along Lightning Creek Road north of Clark Fork, Idaho, local resident Mary Franzel saw a leg-hold trap snap shut on the paw of her pet dog, Morgan. The dog calmed quickly and she released the trap anchored at the edge of the road after taking this photo. (Courtesy photo)
As she cross-country skied along Lightning Creek Road north of Clark Fork, Idaho, local resident Mary Franzel saw a leg-hold trap snap shut on the paw of her pet dog, Morgan. The dog calmed quickly and she released the trap anchored at the edge of the road after taking this photo. (Courtesy photo)
By Nicole Blanchard The Idaho Statesman

BOISE – On Thursday, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission will decide on a petition that would require trappers to post signs warning of active traps nearby – a move that the petitioners say would save dogs from being caught in traps, and which trappers say would expose their trap lines to tampering.

The petition was submitted Feb. 12 by representatives for Living with Wolves, the Humane Society of the United States and the Idaho chapter of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. It asks that trappers be “required to place signs at public trailheads and on public trails and campgrounds within 25 feet of traps and snares.” It also asks the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to place signs in “active wolf hunting areas” between April 1 and Aug. 30, which the petition said would protect humans and pets during the newly extended wolf hunting season. The commission will decide on Thursday whether to approve the petition for rule-making negotiations.

Signs on trap lines would be a burden, trappers say

Current Idaho regulations for trapping require traps to be set a minimum of 300 feet from paved trails and a minimum of 10 feet from the edge of an unpaved trail. But signs declaring the presence of traps are not mandatory, though Idaho Fish and Game has a sign template available for use on its website. Suzanne Stone, one of the petitioners and co-founder of the Wood River Wolf Project, said adding signs to trap lines should be simple enough.

“It’s not a big ask,” Stone said in a phone interview. “It shouldn’t be a difficult thing for someone to do.”

Rusty Kramer, the president of the Idaho Trappers Association, disagrees. Kramer said placing signs on an extensive trap line could easily become expensive and time-intensive – not to mention, it might serve as a tip-off for those who wish to tamper with traps, Kramer said.

“I could see a signage just being a way for someone to really get harassed,” Kramer said.

In a written response, Idaho Fish and Game staff recommended against adopting the petition. Toby Boudreau, the department’s wildlife bureau chief, echoed some of the same concerns about tampering that trappers have raised. Boudreau said illegal trap theft or tampering is a regular issue in Idaho despite carrying a fine of up to $1,500.

“There’s costs and benefits of putting up a sign,” Boudreau said in a phone interview. “One person is going to be glad that they were informed there is a trap on this trail, or within 25 feet of this sign. … There’s the other proportion of people that would take it as an opportunity to go snap traps and potentially other nefarious actions, like stealing traps, which is a common thing that happens here in Idaho.”

Stone said the “hefty penalty” for tampering should be enough of a deterrent, but she also said traps could be difficult to locate, even with signs declaring their presence.

“Those traps are hard to find, especially the ones that are buried or covered by debris,” Stone said. “Even the wire snare traps are hard to see. A lot of those things get left out year after year because even the trappers can’t find them again.”

How often are dogs caught in traps?

Stone said she and the Humane Society of the United States have noticed an uptick in cases of dogs caught in traps. Stone attributes the perceived uptick to an increase in trapping and the use of snare-type traps, which feature a wire or cable noose that loops around an animal’s neck and locks in place after tightening, cutting off circulation. Kramer and Boudreau said there has been a slight increase in trapper numbers in recent years, though Kramer said that ebbs and flows with fur prices. Boudreau estimated there are about 2,000 trappers statewide.

In recent years, there have been a handful of public incidents in Idaho in which dogs died or were seriously injured after caught in traps. In March, a dog named Whiskey died after she was caught in a snare trap while on a hike in Custer County with her owner, Laurie Hurd, the Challis Messenger reported.

“The tragedy with this is the dogs can’t tell you they’re in trouble,” Stone said, referring to snare traps that can affect an animal’s airway.

According to Kramer, the majority of traps don’t harm dogs.

“As long as you know how to set (the dog) loose, they’re not hurt,” Kramer said. “A lot of the fear is from the old cartoons of a huge toothed bear trap that will chop off your leg. When people hear (about) traps, they think they’ll step into it and it’ll be like a movie and clamp down right above their knee.”

Kramer said his own dogs have stepped in foothold traps before, and he has released them without injury. That type of trap is not meant to be lethal and features metal arms that close around an animal’s limb when it puts pressure on the trap.

Fish and Game has videos, a pamphlet and classes to teach people how to safely release dogs from traps. Boudreau said the agency also gets a yearly “report card” from each trapper detailing each animal caught in the trap. He said trappers report few instances of catching “accidental nontargets.”

“The instances of people catching a (pet) is extremely low,” Boudreau said. “Definitely there’s incidences where it happens, but … I wouldn’t say we get a report of somebody’s dog dying every single year. I can think of a couple instances in my 15 years of being with this department.”

The petition also raised concerns about children potentially being caught in traps, but Boudreau said he was not aware of any human injuries or fatalities caused by traps.

“It’s the last thing that a trapper wants to catch is something other than their quarry,” he said.

Trappers say they’re creating regulations to keep dogs safe

Kramer pointed out that many of the recent trapping regulations in Idaho have been introduced by the association itself – including mandatory trapper education courses and the rule adopted last year that requires traps to be 10 feet from the edge of an unpaved trail rather than just 5 feet.

“We’re on the first year of this setback from trails rule … so I honestly think they should be given a chance to work before we talk about more restrictions on trapping,” Kramer said.

It was that rule as well as the rule mandating traps be 300 feet from paved trails, campgrounds and picnic areas that led Fish and Game staff to recommend against the petition, according to the agency’s written response. Boudreau also said he’s not sure signs declaring the presence of traps make a difference to recreationists – which was another reason why IDFG recommended against them. Boudreau said Fish and Game posts signs when it has active trap lines set to capture wolves for radio collaring.

“We put trap signs at every trap and people ignore them,” Boudreau said. “We have had issues where we’ve caught people’s pets. … The signs don’t make a difference. And these are not camouflaged – they’re bright signs.”

Kramer said the Idaho Trappers Association is trying to create reasonable restrictions that protect pets while also preserving trapping.

“I’m a dog owner myself,” he said. “They’re our babies, so I understand people’s connections to their pets. I’m not trying to belittle that in any way, but I don’t want to completely eliminate the sport. This would really, really hamper trapping in Idaho.”

Kramer said he believes the petition is an anti-wolf hunting move made in response to Fish and Game’s expansion of wolf hunting seasons in February. Living With Wolves and Stone’s Wood River Wolf Project promote coexisting with the animals, but Stone said the petition is not meant to interfere with wolf trapping.

“I’ve worked on wolf conservation for 30 years, but I’ve owned dogs every day of my life,” Stone said. “I would like to be able to go out with my son and my family and take my dogs on trails and know I don’t have to worry about them dying.”

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