Leghold traps have unintended victims

Coyote Trapped

By Mary Katherine Ray, Chapter Wildlife Chair

It was a beautiful winter hike in February, and our five Sierra Club outing participants had already seen several hawks. A little group of elk had crossed right in front of us. But just after we dropped down into a deeper canyon from the gentle juniper grassland hills, a movement caught my eye. To our horror, it was a coyote, and she was caught in a leg-hold trap struggling to get away.

When we got closer, we could see how badly injured she was. There was broken bone showing at the trap jaw where it was clamped on her front leg. Every part of her was beautiful and perfect except for her mangled foot. She lunged to get away but was tripped when she got to the end of the chain, over and over.

We could do nothing but walk away. No one on the outing had the heart to go on, and as we made our way back to our vehicles, we kept trying to get cell service but had no luck. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that I reached a local game warden who agreed to meet at the site the next day. But when we got there, the coyote was gone. There were no fresh tracks over our footprints from the day before, and the trap was just lying on the ground, still shut and exposed where the coyote had been. It had no trap ID as required by law, so there is no way to know who set the trap, how long it had been there or when the trapper last checked.

Hiking solo days later, I came upon two people on four-wheelers creating an entirely new trail on the opposite side of a wide canyon from where the road is. As egregious as it is to tear up the fragile landscape with an ORV, I was heart-sickened to discover their truck farther on with the back full of leg-hold traps. They had set their trapline off road and were driving along it.

The truck also had in it a dead coyote, a dead fox and a dead tassel-eared squirrel. Their four-wheelers had driven right by the Forest Service “No Motor Vehicles” sign. Squirrels are not considered “furbearers” in New Mexico and this one could not be legally possessed. But it illustrates the vulnerability and senselessness of the non-target bycatch. A trap that can mangle a coyote’s leg can break the back of a little squirrel.

Despite “mandatory” reporting that trappers are required to return to New Mexico Game and Fish listing what they have killed each year, only 28 percent bothered for the 2009-2010 season. And non-target animals and their fates need not be reported at all. Trappers can put out as many traps as they can feasibly check in one day, but there is really no one looking over their shoulder to make sure they actually are checking. There is no bag limit on any “furbearer” like our bobcats and foxes. The trapper’s goal is to profit by selling the skins of these native carnivores, and the profit motive offers a big temptation to cut corners.
There is no way for other people using public land to know where traps are, and we continue to receive reports from trap victims about injured dogs and even their own injuries suffered while trying to release their pet (see nmsierraclub.org/trapping-personal-stories-in-new-mexico).

After more than five years of waiting, the trapping rules are at last under review, and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is accepting comments now. Please send your comments of protest to nmdept.ofgameandfish@state.nm.us.