Commentary

John Aberth: Why Vermont needs a trapping ban

This commentary is by John Aberth, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator at the Flint Brook Wildlife Refuge in Roxbury.

Imagine you are a hunter, and you decide that you are going to hunt in a new kind of way. You go out into the woods, close your eyes, and start shooting your gun randomly into the woods. You then open your eyes to see what, if anything, you have shot.

In essence, what we have just described is trapping: A completely indiscriminate, haphazard way of capturing and killing animals.

The basic mechanics of a leghold trap, for example, have not changed since the Middle Ages: spring-loaded steel jaws that lie flat on the ground, which snap shut when triggered by the tripping of a bait pan. As expected, anything and everything that happens to put weight on the trip pan will trigger the trap and be caught in its jaws. 

This includes birds of prey such as eagles, hawks and owls; rare, endangered species in Vermont such as pine marten; and domestic dogs and cats. Indeed, the majority of animals caught in leghold traps are nontarget animals that the trapper never intended to kill. 

Even when such animals are freed from the trap by the trapper, they inevitably will die from their injuries, even if these are not visible to the human eye. Wildlife veterinarians have documented that just two to three hours in a trap will cause permanent, debilitating damage to an animal, impairing its ability to hunt and survive in the wild, owing to the constriction of blood vessels that provide needed oxygen and nutrients to soft tissue. 

This is aside from more visible damage often caused by traps, including fractured bones, amputation of digits and limbs, lacerated tissue, etc. Wild animals also suffer terribly from exposure, predation and sheer terror of being constrained by the trap, which is against their whole nature and instinct as free-moving individuals.

Here, it is important to make a distinction between recreational trapping and trapping done for other purposes. Recreational trapping is done by licensed trappers for no other reason than the pure sport of capturing and killing wild animals. In the past, such trappers may have skinned the animals and kept or sold their pelts for use in fur clothing. 

But that is hardly a motive anymore for trappers, as demand for pelts worldwide has declined largely owing to the public’s growing awareness of where and how their purchases are sourced. 

Trapped animals are also not used for food, because furbearers are not popular table fare and their flesh in winter months is very meager. 

Recreational trapping receives very little support in public attitude surveys — even those conducted by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies — yet it comprises the overwhelmingly vast majority of trapping that occurs in the state. Fully 75 percent of Vermont’s population supports a trapping ban, according to a recent survey by UVM’s Center for Rural Studies.

Trapping is done for other purposes, on rare occasions. Modified leghold traps are sometimes used by wildlife biologists to capture animals for relocation or reintroduction purposes. In these circumstances, however, leghold traps are greatly modified from those used by everyday trappers; the main modification is a sensor that alerts the biologist to an animal caught in the trap, so that the animal can be freed before too much permanent damage is done. 

Most importantly, trapping performed by scientists and biologists is for a specific purpose intended to actually benefit wildlife populations.

Trapping is also used to kill “nuisance” wildlife that supposedly conflicts with human uses of the landscape. One of the commonly targeted “nuisance” animals in this regard is the beaver, which may dam or obstruct culverts and flood roadways. 

But data from the field has shown that trapping is the least successful resolution to such conflicts, for the simple reason that new beavers inevitably move into the vacant site within one or two years, and the conflict starts all over again. Trapping is not a long-term, sustainable solution to such conflicts and should therefore be used as a last resort. 

Instead, preference should be given to humane, nonlethal solutions, such as “beaver baffles” or water flow control devices that provide long-term protection of human infrastructure from unwanted beaver activity.

Finally, one should note that state Fish and Wildlife Departments almost uniformly support trapping and oppose any kind of trapping bans. Therefore, Fish and Wildlife biologists and other spokespersons are by no means objective commentators on the issue of trapping; they are, in fact, extremely biased in this regard. 

This bias does not arise from any scientifically based justifications or best management practices with regard to wildlife. Quite the opposite: Trapping is counterproductive to good wildlife management, simply because it is so indiscriminate and because furbearers already self-regulate their populations in accordance with the carrying capacity of the land. 

Instead, Fish and Wildlife Departments generally defend recreational trapping, in spite of its low public approval, on the grounds that it is a time-honored “tradition” that is aligned with “rural” values that helps in the preservation of wildlife habitat and sustainable maintenance of wildlife species. 

All this, of course, is based on the false assumption that “traditional” and “rural” values are, by definition, monolithic, or that any kind of diversity of lifestyles and identities will necessarily devalue wildlife. 

Fish and Wildlife Agencies also claim that elimination of “nuisance” trapping will reduce the cultural “carrying capacity” for a given species, like beaver, in society, and they often conflate a ban on recreational trapping with a ban on trapping done for other, more targeted purposes such as relocation and restoration of endangered species. 

All this completely ignores the fact that bans on recreational trapping explicitly allow for exceptions such as trapping done for “nuisance” control and scientific research. 

What is most revealing is that Fish and Wildlife Departments never show photos of animals caught in traps in any of their publications designed for public consumption. Presumably this is because such cruel images would prove upsetting to many and ultimately reduce support for trapping.


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