By Patrick Lohmann / Journal Staff Writer
The number of trappers in New Mexico is small and getting smaller, and their catch has declined by nearly half over the past five years, according to the state Game and Fish Department.
But this passionate “sub-culture” isn’t going away, said Tom Gannon, expressing a view shared by other longtime New Mexico trappers.
“Trapping is more a way of life than it is a recreational opportunity,” said Tom McDowell, a member of the New Mexico Trappers Association. “It allows you to be outside and in the outdoors for a much longer period of time.”
Animal activists decry trapping as barbaric and have been especially concerned about trapping’s potential impact on the fledgling Mexican gray wolf population in southern New Mexico. Some express concern over pets that might be caught while roaming with their owners. “¦
The controversy over trapping reignited in early August after the state game commission lifted a yearlong ban on trapping in the southern part of the state. Commissioners decided trapping had minimal impact on the wolf population.
Commissioners appointed by incoming Gov. Susana Martinez lifted the ban after reviewing federal research that found trapping, both by wildlife managers and others, accounted for fewer than 4 percent of wolf fatalities during the reintroduction effort, which went from 1998 to 2010.
Of 13 documented wolf trapping incidents in New Mexico in the 12-year span, seven wolves were injured, two had leg amputations and two others died as a result of their injuries, the researchers found [emphasis added].
Wendy Keefover, director of the carnivore protection program at conservation advocate WildEarth Guardians, said traps killing or injuring wolves, regardless of the number, is significant considering how small the wolf population is.
“We’re talking about a species that makes its living by chasing down prey,” she said. “They’re absolutely compromised.”
There is no such thing as a “trapping” license. Instead, trappers get a “furbearing license,” which allows them to catch protected species, such as badgers, foxes and bobcats.
Slightly more than 1,700 furbearer licenses were issued at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, down from more than 2,100 in 2005, according to state game department data. The number of elk hunting licenses, by comparison, has stayed around 40,000 in the same time frame.
Trapping season runs from November to March.
In addition to slumping license renewals, the number of animals caught through trapping has dropped around 50 percent since the 2007 season.
Fewer than 10,000 animals — mostly coyotes, foxes and bobcats — were trapped in the New Mexico wilderness in the 2010-11 season, compared with more than 19,900 animals four years earlier, according to the state data.
Once the animals are caught, trappers shoot and skin them. They typically sell the pelts at state auctions or elsewhere. “¦
There’s no limit for trappers on the number of traps set or animals caught.
On average, 5 percent of traps catch an animal, McDowell said.
In recent years, state regulations have required “offsets” and “laminations” on traps, modifications that increase both the width of the metal bands that trap the animal and prevent traps from closing all the way.
Rick Winslow, a large carnivore and furbearer biologist for the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, said the regulations make trapping more humane, especially if the traps catch an unintended target.
“It’s that much easier for non-target releases, and it’s easier for the animal,” he said. “There’s always people who are against trapping “¦ so the more we can do to uphold what is considered best management practices, the better.”
Keefover said the traps are inhumane regardless of the modifications. She said animals can further harm themselves before trappers retrieve them.
“Trapping is cruel and barbaric. It’s not the same as hunting,” she said. “When they get into a trap, they’re going to try and get out and injure themselves.”
Trappers and state officials point to different factors for the decline, including rising gas prices, a diminishing prey base for bobcats, a declining fur market and the drought.
Also, trapping regulations changed two years ago, making it impossible for trappers to get licenses without first disclosing the number of animals they caught the season before, Winslow, the biologist, said. “¦
Officials also point out that as much as 50 percent of all furbearer licenses are given to big-game hunters who ask for the licenses so they can shoot “protected furbearers” like foxes and bobcats, even though those animals aren’t their main target.
Gannon stressed that the state’s ability to manage wildlife would be greatly diminished if it weren’t for hunters and trappers, who provide a large chunk of money to the state through licensing and other fees.
The relationship between activists and trappers is contentious, but Gannon acknowledged that the dialogue has resulted in more humane treatment of animals over the years.
“There’s been some positive stuff with the animal rights activists — made trappers clean up their act up years ago,” he said. “We do everything we can to make these traps as humane as we can.”
Gannon said that, since he was 12 years old, he has been compelled to seek out wilderness, and animal trapping allows him to do that.
“It makes me feel closer to the land, like I’m part of something bigger than myself,” Gannon, 62, said. “(Trapping) totally consumed my life.”
McDowell said trappers are enthralled with the challenge of learning animal habits well enough to know where the critters are likely to step foot.
“You don’t just sprinkle the traps out,” McDowell said. “You go out, you search the country, you get a sense “¦ And that’s where you set your traps.”
PLEASE SUBMIT A LETTER TO THE EDITOR — MEXICAN WOLVES CAN’T AFFORD LOSSES TO TRAPPING.
Surveys of newspaper readers show that the letters page is among the most closely read parts of the paper. It’s also the page policy-makers look to as a barometer of public opinion.
Please write a letter to the editor today (letters submitted soon after an article runs have a much better chance of being published). Your letter will also have a better chance of getting published if you start by thanking the paper for its recent article, and tie your key points to the article.
Sample Talking Points. These are only suggestions. Please write in your own words, from your own experience, and keep it brief.
> Thank the Albuquerque Journal for their article on wolves and traps.
> Only around 50 Mexican wolves remain in the wild, making it the most endangered mammal in North America. With a population this small, every individual wolf is essential.
> 69% or 7 in 10 New Mexicans support Mexican Wolf Reintroduction. See survey here.
> Wolves are native to New Mexico and inhabited most of the state prior to aggressive extermination the last century.
> Leg hold traps pose a significant risk to endangered Mexican Gray wolves.
> The New Mexico Game Commission should not have removed the ban on leg hold traps.
> Since 2002 14 Mexican Wolves were caught in leg hold traps, two of them requiring complete leg amputations because of the traps.
> Leg hold traps are inhumane and have been banned in 80 Counties and several states, including Arizona.
> With traps hidden throughout lobo habitat, it takes just one wrong step to ensnare a wolf, maiming it and potentially ending its life in the wild.
> Wolves are magnificent creatures that keep watersheds and ecosystems healthy. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone has been a boon to the environment there.
> Biologists know that once they are fully restored, Mexican wolves will improve the overall health of southwest ecosystems
> We have a moral, economic and scientific responsibility to restore endangered species like the Mexican gray wolf.
Thank you, and please share any letters you submit with us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We are happy to review your letter with you before you send it to the paper, if you’d like help.
To read the full article published in the Albuquerque Journal and leave a comment, click here. (Non-subscribers can scroll down and use the Trial Access button)
Photo courtesy of the Mexican wolf Interagency Field Team