After more than a decade of advocating for a statewide trapping ban on public land, an anti-trapping group is taking more of a local approach, asking pet owners where around Missoula their dogs should be able to safely run free.
Last Thursday, Footloose Montana director Stephen Capra talked to about 30 people at the Imagine Nation Brewing Company about an issue that dog owners could face if they like recreating along the rivers near town.
“There have been a number of dogs within the last eight years that have wound up in snares or traps in or around the city,” Capra said. “Even though trapping is not allowed in the city, we had a dog die just a couple months ago as the result of an illegal trap. It made me think, ‘Why would we do this anywhere near an urban area in the first place?’”
Capra was referring to an incident reported in December where a family lost their young dog in an illegal trap set near the Clark Fork River in the Orchard Homes area.
Trappers can set snares and Conibear traps – heavy, metal-framed traps that clamp down on an animal to suffocate it – to catch beaver, muskrat, mink or otter in the river outside of the city limits. But few people in the audience didn’t know traps could be set in the rivers just outside of town even if trapping isn’t allowed on land.
Capra had been surprised too, which prompted Footloose’s effort to get a local ban on traps.
“I was surprised at the differentiation between land and water, thinking in terms of how many people go down the river. The idea that there would be these Conibear traps all over the river because water has sort of a different status is kind of appalling to me,” Capra said. “I think of all the tourtists who come to visit us – talk about having no clue.”
Also at the meeting were a few members of the Montana Trappers Association. Trapper John Wilson said he often attends the meetings to make sure that Footloose is providing facts. But that’s not always the case, Wilson said.
“With a lot of these people, it’s just the fear of the trap,” Wilson said. “I like to make sure they’re presenting data correctly. Trapping is highly regulated – it’s not like (Footloose) presented.”
Capra asked people to fill out cards that list seven popular public areas and indicate which they would like to be trap-free. The areas include the Clark Fork River along the Tower Street open space, the Bitterroot River near Maclay Flats and Fort Missoula, Kelly Island, Council Grove State Park, public land around the Johnsrud Fishing Access and the new Lolo Trails area.
Wilson said quite a bit of trapping occurs at Johnsrud and in the Blackfoot River drainage, as well as other areas, but pointed out that trapping occurs only from Nov. 1 through mid-April when few recreationalists are on the river.
In addition, Wilson said, trappers have to apply to trap on state land, such as Council Grove State Park or around the Kelly Island Fishing Access, and they have to post signs that trapping is occurring. So, one option is to have signs posted in parks or open space areas that say traps could be present in the water during the winter months. Then people would know.
“The urban-interface trapping that they’re really hitting on is in the city limits and we don’t trap the city limits – there are already city ordinances that don’t allow trapping. It all came about from those guys who were trapping illegally. They really put us back (in public opinion),” Wilson said. “If you’re so worried about your dog, don’t take your dog along the river.”
But not all stretches along the river within the city limits are owned by the city, Capra said.
“The city by the river is somewhat checkerboarded. So you could actually get into a place that you think is okay, but it might not be as safe as you thought. So with Maclay Flats – there are no traps on land but there could be in the water,” Capra said. “The reaction from FWP is ‘Keep your dog on a leash.’ But there’s a reason I take my dog to the river: so he can jump in the river and can play and have fun. It’s just not the way that people function when they go to the river with their dogs.”
During Thursday’s meeting, several Footloose Montana supporters, who were in the majority, interrupted Wilson, firing angry retorts as he calmly tried to answer questions. Capra had to ask people to stick to the issue of the Footloose proposal.
On the other hand, Imagine Nation Brewery manager Brooke Jones said a few trapping supporters had posted angry comments on the brewery’s Facebook post publicizing the event. So, before the meeting, she reminded participants to keep things civil.
Afterward, Jones said the controversy prompted her to consider having the brewery host a moderated panel discussion where both sides could give presentations and answer questions to try to improve understanding. Wilson was skeptical but wasn’t opposed to the idea.
“I’d consider it, but at the Imagine Nation Brewery, there’s not a lot of like-minded people like me. It’s not like they want to do it out in Drummond,” Wilson said.
Capra said Footloose may try to organize a few more public meetings, but none are scheduled yet. Footloose Montana has just started reaching out to the public so he had no timeline for when the group would finalize the proposal.
But once he has an idea of the amount of opposition to traps in the seven areas, he plans to bring the issue to the governments and agencies that oversee the various parks and open space areas, including the city and county of Missoula, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
“We’d love to get a resolution from the city council and the county commission,” Capra said. “But on the specific pieces of land, depending on where you’re at, ownership can be slightly complicated. But the bottom line is we’re looking at places that are pretty popular with people in town. I don’t think trapping makes sense in our community and I think you could say that for Bozeman and other larger communities in the state.”
But that’s exactly where Wilson sees a problem; he and other trappers worry that Footloose’s efforts won’t stop at Missoula. Bans will start popping up in other towns, and then it might not take much more for trappers to be kicked off public land altogether, Wilson said.
Certain areas have already been closed to trapping such as Pattee Creek Canyon, Blue Mountain, the Rattlesnake corridor and Bass Creek in the Bitterroot Mountains.
“I don’t want to give up any more area, because every time we give something up, they want more,” Wilson said. “They want to take trapping off all public land. That’s not fair. Just because someone doesn’t like what I do, they want to take that away. It’s public land that everyone gets to use. It’s American, man. I don’t agree with everything they do, but we all gotta share it.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org