Editor’s note: This commentary is by Sophie Bowater, the founder of Peace of Mind Animal Wellness, who is a volunteer with Protect Our Wildlife and Green Mountain Animal Defenders. The views here are her own.
The legal trapping season in Vermont starts on Oct. 24 this year and lasts through the end of March. Many Vermonters are surprised to learn that steel-jawed leghold, body crushing “kill” traps, and drowning traps remain legal in Vermont. Thanks to the work of local wildlife protection groups, more and more people are becoming informed about trapping and are eager to ban it.
Historically, the general public rarely got to see a terrified red fox or bobcat thrashing in a leghold trap or a river otter crushed in a Conibear “kill” trap. Thanks to social media, and the photos and videos shared by trappers, the public is now seeing trapping for what it is: legalized cruelty to animals. No amount of euphemistic language or pro-trapping propaganda promoted by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department or trappers can hold water against clear evidence of animal suffering. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s pro-trapping propaganda machine has led the public to believe that trapping is warranted and refer to it as “conservation.”
Fish & Wildlife rarely discusses trapping on its own social media pages and a few years ago it issued instructions to trappers in their Vermont Furbearer Management Newsletter to filter their social media posts, even instructing them on how to showcase their kills to portray trapping in the best possible light. Fish & Wildlife touts their use of best management practices to bolster public confidence in, and support for, trapping. What people don’t realize is that these practices are merely recommendations, and neither state nor federal wildlife management agencies are required to adopt them. In fact, according to a national survey of licensed trappers in the United States, only 42% had even heard of best management practices for trapping. Fish & Wildlife has neglected to have an open discussion either about the cruelties inherent in trapping or the non-selective nature of traps and the risk they present to non-targeted animals, including our dogs and cats.
For a paltry $23 trapping license fee, Vermont trappers are allowed to trap and kill unlimited foxes, beavers, otters, bobcats and other wildlife in season, with little to no oversight. Fish & Wildlife’s regulations are enforced with a very light touch. Until just a few years ago, trappers didn’t even have to report their kills! Although paper or online reporting is now required, it is impossible to know whether trappers are providing accurate information. Hunters have to tag their kills and exhibit the carcasses, but not trappers (with a few exceptions). Another unknown is the number of “incidental takes,” or non-targeted species, who are trapped each year. For example, if a trapper catches a bobcat out of season in a leghold trap set for a coyote, that trapper is allowed to release the animal with no reporting and without having a biologist or veterinarian assess the animal for injuries. Even for protected species like owls and hawks, there is no required reporting if one of them is caught in a trap. How is this responsible management? Examples of incidental takes in Vermont include endangered pine martens caught in traps set for fisher, as well as herons, turtles, frogs, Canada geese, deer, black bears, and barred owls, to name a few. These were only discovered through public records’ requests or through trappers’ Facebook pages.
What makes a bad situation worse is that many of the traps in use today are fundamentally unchanged from those used hundreds of years ago. All traps, even kill traps, which are known to malfunction, can cause severe injuries. These injuries are not always visible. Animals sustain broken teeth and bloody gums from chewing on the metal to free themselves. Other injuries, such as broken bones, joint dislocations, and severed tendons, can impede an animal’s ability to hunt successfully if released.
When wildlife advocates seek modest changes to trapping regulations, they’re routinely turned away by Fish & Wildlife. This past January, Protect Our Wildlife submitted a petition to Fish & Wildlife requesting three items: 1) posting signs at trailheads on public lands informing the public of the presence of traps; 2) discontinuing the use of visual bait on traps to reduce the incidental take of bald eagles and other raptors; 3) implementing setback requirements for traps set near public trails and recreation areas. The petition was rejected. It seems as though the general public, who largely opposes trapping, is routinely ignored while Fish & Wildlife panders to the 0.15% who trap. A 2017 University of Vermont Center for Rural Studies poll revealed that 75% of Vermonters polled oppose trapping.
Wildlife is held in trust by Fish & Wildlife for the benefit of all Vermonters. Vermont Fish & Wildlife continues to make public policy decisions that only benefit privileged stakeholders (trappers and hunters.) What about the 75% of us who want change?