Helena attorney Betsy Brandborg has had to free her pet from a steel trap three times while cross-country skiing on National Forest lands. The first incident occurred at a campground. Her Airedale lost blood and teeth, but survived. Brandborg notified the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. After six weeks, she says, FWP finally investigated and informed her that she was wrong to tamper with a licensed trapper’s trap – to rescue her dog. The trapper wasn't cited.
Besides getting her dog out of leg-hold traps, Brandborg once needed to free her young son from a trapper’s rusty snare. The boy became ensnared while on a family Christmas tree hunt. Now Brandborg carries tools to free dogs and people when she ventures onto public forest trails.
Brandborg didn’t set out to campaign for a trapping ban on public lands; she just wanted FWP to keep traps and snares off of public areas used for other recreation. But after years of frustration that agency rules protected trappers — not pets and the public — Brandborg is spearheading a Montana effort to stop recreational and commercial trapping on public lands.
The idea of a ballot initiative to restrict trapping has been discussed publicly at least since the 1990’s. FWP has added some safety measures where there were none, but the setback requirements still don’t protect the public and not all trappers follow the agency’s safety recommendations.
Private land exempt
Initiative 177 wouldn’t apply on private lands or tribal lands — only on state and federal public lands. The initiative also allows FWP to issue trapping permits when animals threaten public health or safety or agriculture. The proposed law would require the state to try humane or non-lethal means of animal removal before resorting to steel traps.
Among many letters The Gazette has received in favor of I-177, several tell stories similar to Brandborg’s.
From a retired wildlife biologist in Missoula: “Over the last five years, our family dogs have been caught three times in coil-spring traps set along National Forest roads where we hike and ski. Our dogs stick fairly close to us, but they do sniff around. And since traps are invariably set near roads and trails, the dogs, like all inquisitive carnivores, check out the bait.”
From Polson: “I will never forget hearing her blood-curdling cries. Thank goodness I was with a friend who knew enough to throw a coat over Jessie’s head so she wouldn’t bite me as we tried to remove her from the trap. FWP found the trapper, who was fined for not attaching ID tags to his traps. There were no charges or fines directly related to Jessie’s suffering or the veterinary bills because there are no laws against trapping pets.”
From Trout Creek: “I have had dogs caught in traps on public lands, and know how difficult it can be to free a panicked pet. I was lucky to know how and had the strength to open the traps (on two different occasions) but still got bitten.”
Certainly, there are Montana trappers who make the efforts FWP suggests to minimize trapping of pets and other “non-target” species. There will be a need for trapping specific species in particular places, but Montana’s fur bearer trapping law conflicts with the increasing popularity of public lands for other recreation.
The purpose of I-177 is to reduce hazards for the public.
The Gazette editorial board agrees that I-177 would be a better law than the trapping rules now on the books. People shouldn’t have to worry that they or their pets will fall prey to man-made traps when they go out to enjoy public lands.