Many states are imposing greater restrictions on wildlife trapping. So far, Vermont isn’t one of them.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) is locking horns with a Vermont wildlife advocacy group over what the group claims is DFW’s failure to regulate cruel and inhumane trapping practices.
Brenna Galdenzi, president of the wildlife advocacy group Protect Our Wildlife (POW), said that along with causing animals prolonged suffering before being “dispatched” (killed), traps pose a deadly risk to incidental wildlife and pets that unwittingly wander into them.
“Trapping is such a horrifically cruel practice that really serves no purpose in a civilized society,” Galdenzi said. “And tragically, the excuse we hear time and time again is that it’s ‘tradition.’”
Current state laws allow traps to be placed on both private (with permission) and public land, with no distance requirement from public trails. Trappers are not obligated to report what species are found dead in the traps or released injured back into the wild, and they are permitted to kill animals in the traps by any method they choose, including bludgeoning, strangling, and drowning.
Galdenzi said the DFW rejected POW’s recent petition requesting that, among other things, traps not be placed near public trails.
“I know a lot of people who hike with their dogs off-leash,” Galdenzi said. “And our petition only asked that trappers have to set their traps a certain footage away from public trails and trailheads. But DFW refused to even do that.”
Last December, a Washington dog was killed in a 10-inch kill trap set for bobcats, Galdenzi said. The trapper was found to be in violation of laws requiring that kill traps larger than 8 inches be set at least five feet off the ground.
“There is no reason to be trapping and killing bobcats,” Galdenzi said. “And that act resulted in killing a non-targeted pet.”
Some of Galdenzi’s concerns center on the trappers themselves. A disturbing video posted on POW’s YouTube channel depicts a pair of Vermont trappers filming themselves while mocking a terrified bobcat caught in a leghold trap. One of the trappers can be heard laughing while the other repeatedly assaults the animal before taking its life.
DFW furbearer biologist Kim Royar, who referred to trappers and hunters as “our (DFW’s) eyes and ears on the ground,” said while she respects POW’s right to “have whatever beliefs and values they choose to have,” she finds it “a little elitist to try to force others to share their values.”
“We should be out there addressing climate change, protecting wildlife habitat, and ensuring these species are going to survive into the future,” Royar said. “When we end up polarizing people who care about wildlife instead of finding common ground, we’re putting these animals more at risk.”
Galdenzi said POW has made numerous attempts to find common ground with DFW, but so far the agency has refused to meet them halfway.
“In January, we presented the (DFW) board—which is made up of all hunters and trappers—with a petition that would have required trappers to not use visual bait for their land traps,” Galdenzi said. “DFW refused to even make that minor change to help protect owls and other birds of prey. That’s how unwilling they are to reach across the aisle and work with wildlife advocacy groups.”
Maine’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department has already imposed similar restrictions on visible bait traps, Galdenzi said. According to the state’s website Maine.gov, foothold or kill traps must not be set within 50 yards of bait that is visible from above. Maine also requires that any non-target species found dead in a trap be reported and turned over to the Department.
Describing the issue as “complicated,” Royar said she fears if trapping is banned, some wildlife species may come to be viewed as “pests.” She cited beaver population issues in Massachusetts as an example of damage caused by “well-meaning people who don’t understand all the facts.”
In 1997, Massachusetts banned the use of steel-jawed and padded leghold traps used to trap animals underwater. According to a January 2001 report by research analyst Paul Frisman, the state’s beaver population after the ban “increased from 20,000 to 70,000, and the number of complaints of beaver damage has grown from about 400 to about 1,000.”
“Prior to the ban, Massachusetts was able to control their beaver populations,” Royar said. “But when trapping was banned, they saw a terrific increase.”
As a result of the damage caused by overpopulation, Royar said, “a lot of people stopped caring about beavers and the wetlands.”
Galdenzi claimed that along with “oversimplifying” Massachusetts’ beaver issues, DFW refuses to acknowledge there now exists effective, nonlethal methods for controlling beaver populations.
“When you hear DFW talk about justification for trapping, they always use beavers as their scapegoat,” Galdenzi said. “I think beavers are the only species they’ve ever publicly said needs to be trapped.”
When asked if DFW considers trapping an important part of controlling wildlife populations in Vermont, Royar said, “Not an important part, no.”
More important than how much each individual animal suffers in a trap, Royar argued, is DFW’s mission to engage people with the outdoors, and its dedication to tracking state wildlife populations.
“Whether it’s hunting, fishing, birdwatching, or trapping, all of those are acceptable activities if they don’t impact the (species’) population,” Royar said. “Animals die in the wild all the time, and get hit by cars probably more often than anything else. Dying is not a pleasant thing.”
Galdenzi agreed that death in the wild, particularly when caused by traps, is far from pleasant.
“Recently, a coyote was caught in the head by a body crushing kill trap set for a fisher,” Galdenzi said. “The trap was found more than a mile away from where it was initially set, so who knows how long that coyote suffered with that trap on his head.”
Royar said she questions the authenticity of some of the disturbing stories and photos posted by wildlife advocates on social media.
“I would suspect that some of those (photos) are from places other than Vermont,” Royar said.
Galdenzi challenged Royar’s suggestion that photos posted by POW are fake news.
“It’s convenient for Royar to say that, but the reality is that there is an endless pool of content to pull from here in Vermont,” Galdenzi said. “There’s no need to seek out-of-state evidence of trapping cruelty.”
Galdenzi said that while POW “would like to see leghold and conibear body-crushing traps banned,” the group’s January petition “was not about banning trapping at all.” They continue to hope DFW will join other states in opposing animal cruelty, she said.
“Vermont has a lot of bad traditions that are no longer accepted,” Galdenzi said. “Now that we know better and we can do better, we should do better.”
Arizona, California, Colorada, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington have either limited or banned certain types of traps, including leg holds, due to concerns about safety and animal cruelty.