Debate over trapping on NM public lands rages on

Bobcat siblings © Julianne Koza

By Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press, printed in Las Cruces Sun News on September 14

ALBUQUERQUE — The debate over whether New Mexico should prohibit the trapping of bobcats, raccoons and other furbearing animals on public lands is far from over.

Conservation groups scheduled a forum Wednesday evening to talk about trapping and a recent decision by the state Game Commission to lift a trapping ban in southwestern New Mexico, where the federal government has reintroduced the endangered Mexican gray wolf.

The groups have labeled trapping as cruel and barbaric. They want state and federal officials to consider their appeals for ending the practice on public lands.

"The Game Commission ignored 12,000 people who asked that traps be banned on public lands. Since we were ignored, we're providing a forum for people to be heard," said Wendy Keefover of the Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians.

"We hope to really create a stir about trapping in New Mexico because what's going on is completely under regulated, and it affects so many people, and it has ecosystem affects," she said.

Trappers are digging in their heels and taking issue with how the practice is being portrayed.

"These are scare tactics that hit on people's emotions," Tom McDowell, a member of the New Mexico Trappers Association, said, referring to the groups' claims of the potential danger of getting tangled up in a trap in the woods.

Conservationists are also concerned about the fate of the Mexican gray wolf. They sent thousands of letters and emails to the commission this summer in hopes that the panel would keep in place the ban in the wolf recovery area that was spurred last year by former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson.

Since its beginnings in 1998, the wolf program has been stymied by everything from illegal shootings, court battles and complaints from ranchers and environmentalists. About 50 wolves are in the wild in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona.

Commissioners lifted the trapping ban after the game department made a recommendation based on a recent federal study that found trapping accounts for only a fraction of documented wolf injuries and deaths in the recovery area.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, there have been 14 incidents involving wolves caught in traps since 2002. In six cases, the animals were injured.

Keefover pointed to two wolf deaths and three injuries, including two that required leg amputations.

"Look, you've got a population of 50 individuals, every wolf counts. They don't just see it that way," she said.

Besides reaching out to the public in an effort to put more pressure on a public lands trapping ban, conservationists have sent petitions to the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking a ban.

Keefover pointed to other western states that have banned trapping or placed restrictions on the practice, including California, Arizona, Colorado and Washington. She said New Mexico should follow suit.

Between 1,100 and 2,000 trapping permits are sold each year in New Mexico, but only about half of those are purchased by hunters who use traps or snares, according to the state Game and Fish Department.

Trappers say the practice plays a significant role in rural economies, and helps ranchers and farmers manage predators. It is one of the tools the game department uses for managing wildlife statewide, they pointed out.

The agency is required by state statute to manage New Mexico's wildlife resources in a sustainable way for both hunters and recreationalists. The fees paid by trappers, hunters and anglers fund conservation and management efforts, the agency has said.

There are few limits in New Mexico on how many animals can be killed by licensed trappers, but rules govern how often trappers are required to inspect their traps and where they can be placed. Areas close to campgrounds, picnic areas, designated trails and roadways are off-limits, and trappers are required to mark their equipment with their name or an identification number.

McDowell said trappers comply with the rules and are cautious about where they place traps to avoid conflicts.

"If trapping was doing evil, that would be one thing. It's not. It's balancing things," he said. "They have painted us as cruel and barbaric. It's terribly unfair, and it's just not true."

The conservation groups said everyone from members of the game commission to trappers would be welcomed at Wednesday's forum. But McDowell had no plans on attending. He described the debate over trapping as "a never-ending battle."

"To go to this kind of forum and be ridiculed is not my idea of a good time," he said. "There's nothing I can say that will change anybody's mind."

Changing minds is exactly what Keefover and the other trapping critics are trying to do. "We feel like we have this huge boulder to push up a hill," she said. "These traps are really dangerous, and once somebody's dog gets caught in a trap, they're going to be really reluctant to go out on public lands again. It's not safe."