City of Missoula considers stronger penalties for illegal trapping

After a few pets have been caught in illegal traps around Missoula, the City Council is proposing to add some teeth to its existing ordinance.

On Wednesday, the Public Safety and Health Committee voted unanimously to have a public hearing on proposed changes to the city ordinance that already bans wildlife trapping on city parks, trails and conservation lands.

Council member Julie Merritt said she spent the past few months working with Footloose Montana on the proposal after learning of a family’s tragedy and then being disappointed in the ordinance.

“The letter of the ordinance was somewhat confusing, and that led to some difficulty in charging in a recent event that happened in December of last year where a 17-month-old dog was caught in a trap and killed,” Merritt said.

First, Merritt wants to up the penalty for anyone caught trapping on city property, especially if it results in injury to or the death of a pet or child.

Currently, those found guilty of trapping on city land are fined between $25 and $500. They must also pay for a lost or injured pet, but only if the owner can prove its value, such as with a pedigreed animal. Merritt wants to give a judge more leeway to determine the amount of restitution.

“If you, like many of us, have an animal that was rescued and doesn’t have an on-paper dollar value, there’s not much restitution you can get,” Merritt said.

Another big change is allowing Parks and Recreation employees to disarm and confiscate any traps they find. Merritt said she spoke with the Parks and Recreation staff and they are comfortable with doing that.

Finally, Merritt made a few editing changes to the ordinance, because anyone looking for the trapping ban has to look under a section titled “Hunting pursuant to Block Management.” So Merritt would put trapping under its own heading.

Both Stephen Capra and Anja Heister of Footloose Montana called in to support the proposal, saying the changes were common sense.

“Having met the gentleman whose dog was caught last year, he said, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get over this’” Capra said. “I think if one other thing could be done, and that’s something we’re discussing with the city, would be to have signage up. So that people who have this idea that they’re going start putting traps out will understand pretty quickly that that would a bad idea, and it’s illegal within the confines of the city.”

In July, Footloose Montana – along with WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, the Mountain Lion Foundation, and the Humane Society of Western Montana – sent a letter to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks proposing that several parks and open space areas in the Five Valleys region but outside the Missoula city limits be off-limits to trapping.

Certain areas are already closed to trapping such as Pattee Creek Canyon, Blue Mountain, the Rattlesnake corridor and Bass Creek in the Bitterroot Mountains. Trappers see these kinds of proposals as an end-run intended to lead to a statewide trapping ban.

The city might run into some issues with the removal of traps, because state law doesn’t allow anyone other than law enforcement to “destroy, disturb or remove any trap.” But that issue may be brought up during the public hearing scheduled for Oct. 19.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.