HELENA, Mont. (CN) - After two attempts, an animal advocacy group has finally succeeded in getting an anti-trapping initiative on the Montana ballot. There are 20 other states with varying trapping prohibitions, but it may take several more tries before such a ban passes in this rural state.
The Montana Trap-Free Public Lands Initiative, I-177, qualified for the state ballot in June after supporters gathered signatures from more than 5 percent of Montana's 681,000 registered voters. The initiative would ban recreational and commercial trapping on all public land in the state, although Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks employees could still trap or give approval for citizens to trap problem animals if nonlethal methods are not effective. Nonlethal methods include hazing, eliminating livestock carcass dumps and the use of range riders.
I-177 backers, including Montanans for Trap-Free Public Lands spokeswoman Connie Poten, say a driving factor behind the initiative is the number of family pets that get caught in snares and traps while their owners recreate on public land. More than 60 veterinarians have endorsed the initiative.
"We want the initiative because there are tens of thousands of commercial and recreational traps that are making public lands unsafe for the public to enjoy and because it's a cruel activity that is driving species to extinction," Poten said.
In the late 1990s, a local group called The Friends of Buddy started pushing for more trapping regulations in Montana after one of the organizer's dogs, Buddy, died in a Conibear trap. A Conibear trap is a heavy spring-loaded frame that clamps down on an animal's head or body, either breaking its neck or strangling it.
After that, pet owners made about 20 reports a year of animals caught in traps or snares, according to the nonprofit group Footloose Montana. Many other non-target species, including eagles, bears and moose also end up in traps, attracted by bait. In response, Footloose Montana tried to get the first trapping ban on the 2010 ballot but came up 1,500 signatures short.
In 2013, after state wildlife officials started allowing wolf trapping, the number of pets reported caught in traps jumped to 50 a year.
As a result, Trap-free Montana Public Lands proposed another trapping-ban for the 2014 ballot.
Under increasing public pressure, Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Montana Trappers Association agreed to increase the buffer zone on either side of popular trailheads to 300 feet. Previously, hunters could trap within 50 feet of a trail. In 2015, the number of dogs caught in traps dropped to 14.
The 2014 initiative stalled because supporters didn't have enough time to collect the required number of signatures. This year, ban proponents got out of the gate early.
But the Montana Trappers Association continues to push back, dubbing I-177 as "ballot box biology." Trappers argue that pets wouldn't be injured if responsible owners kept them on a leash and after more than a decade of fighting the two sides are sworn enemies.
This year, the association spent more than $206,000 arguing I-177 is an assault on Montana's trapping heritage and that state wildlife officials could not manage Montana's wildlife populations without trappers.
In 2013, according to the most recent Fish, Wildlife & Parks harvest reports, the agency sold more than 5,800 trapping licenses and over 58,000 animals being trapped, although not all trappers report their results. A state financial analysis predicts the agency would forfeit more than $61,000 in annual license sales if I-177 passes.
I-177 opponents also say a ban would harm farmers and ranchers who depend on U.S. Wildlife Service trappers, although it's likely that federal trappers would get state approval. The Montana Stockgrowers Association has added its opposition, saying ranchers don't want to be forced to try nonlethal methods before resorting to trapping.
Sportsmen's groups present a big bloc of opposition, but some hunters are conflicted. They say it's hard to defend trapping because it's not "fair-chase" hunters aren't supposed to use methods that give them unfair advantage over their prey and trappers profit from selling their furs. Montana trappers generated $2.7 million from pelts in 2012, according to the most recent survey by the trappers association. Fish, Wildlife & Parks also doesn't require trappers to pass an education course, as hunters must, despite the National Trappers Association statistic that half of all trappers each year are novices.
But hunters listen when trappers warn that if I-177 passes, initiative proponents will come after hunting next an argument Poten denies.
"Arizona ended trapping 20 years ago; there's not been any movement to end hunting there. There's no connection," she said.
Dave Chadwick, Montana Wildlife Federation's executive director, said opposing I-177 goes beyond hunters' fear of the next ban. It's the fact that the initiative excludes one group of people from using public land.
"When we start using the ballot box to kick certain activities off 29 million acres of public land, what's next? This is why we oppose the state takeover of federal lands because we don't want broad-brush decisions of what activities are and aren't allowed," Chadwick said. "If someone told me I could hunt only on private land, I wouldn't like it."
Montana Trappers Association president Toby Walrath agreed that forcing specific users off of public land sets a bad precedent.
"I think there's certainly some room where non-trappers and trappers can come together and find some resolution without going to the extreme of cutting out an entire user group on public land," Walrath told Montana Public Radio.
Poten admits that I-177 is unlikely to pass. In a poll conducted in mid-October, almost 2/3 of the 1,000 registered voters polled said they oppose the initiative. But that won't stop Montanans for Trap-Free Public Lands — they'll be busy in the Montana Legislature in January and possibly in the next election.
"The trappers are going to be trying to make sure that trapping is made a Constitutional right. We'll be in a battle in the Legislature with the trappers, I have no doubt," Poten said.
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