Trappers and wildlife advocates are squaring off again, this time over a petition asking that the Colorado Wildlife Commission allow the trapping of nine furbearing species that are currently off-limits.
The request, submitted by the Colorado Trappers Association, targets mink, marten, long-tailed weasel, short-tailed weasel (ermine), swift fox, opossum, gray fox, ringtails and western spotted skunk.
"Approval of a season for these species would allow both big- and small-game hunters to take personal trophies," CTA vice president Marv Miller wrote in the request. "It would provide varmint hunters who call in swift fox to take them. It would provide opportunity for fur harvesters to take them for sale of pelts, skulls, taxidermy and other products."
Commission members, who have been considering the matter since March, will make a decision at their July 13 meeting in Fort Collins.
They've already gotten an earful.
"Hunting wildlife for their pelts makes no sense from an ecological, ethical or public-interest perspective," says a letter signed by 14 conservation groups. The missive labels recreational trapping "inhumane," and notes that "animals trapped for their pelts are often put to death in barbaric ways."
The first trap clap
This is only the latest skirmish in a clash of values that dates back to 1995. That's when the commission, under public pressure, ended trapping of the targeted species, shortened trapping seasons and tightened equipment requirements.
"We went from having the most liberal I would say the most reasonable taking regulations of 17 Western states to having the most restrictive," says Claude Oleyar, a longtime trapper who lives in Colorado Springs.
Trapping opponents weren't happy either, especially after subsequent legislation gave the state Department of Agriculture exclusive authority to regulate and eradicate, by any means 10 furbearing species, including coyote, fox, bobcat, raccoon and beaver.
That legislation was the impetus for a 1996 ballot initiative that banned the use of leghold traps, instant-kill body-gripping traps, poisons and snares, with certain exemptions. Colorado voters approved Amendment 14 with 52 percent of the vote.
The current controversy concerns only which species may be trapped, not the kinds of traps used. Since Amendment 14 went into effect, Colorado trappers have relied largely on baited "box" traps, which capture animals without harming them. Trappers then kill their quarry, typically with a shot to the head, though lethal injection, drowning, strangling, suffocation, clubbing or other methods may be used.
While box-trapping and killing wildlife doesn't violate the letter of Amendment 14, opponents say it clearly violates the spirit. They point to the implementing legislation, which cites "the expressed desire of the people of Colorado to promote humane methods of animal control and discourage the use of inhumane methods."
'Fun' with fur
Trappers realize they've got a hard sell. They're a small group; at about 350, CTA membership is less than half what it was 25 years ago. And they're pushing an activity that remains unpopular: trapping and killing animals for their pelts. Many Coloradans look askance at the fur industry, and Oleyar acknowledges that most don't understand or appreciate the "fun" of trapping.
A similar CTA petition five years ago was denied after generating strong opposition. This year, 341 letters 338 of which oppose the petition were included in an information packet prepared for commission members.
Their decision will be complicated by a lack of current scientific data. Anecdotal information sightings, tracks, scat and, historically, pelt numbers provides "no compelling reason to believe that limited take of some of these species would cause damage to their populations," says DOW regulations coordinator Brett Ackerman. "But intensive population-scale studies haven't been done."
Oleyar argues that comprehensive data wasn't necessary to de-list the species, and shouldn't be required to re-list them.
"These species have been trapped historically back as far as you can go, without a problem," he says. "All the species mentioned are common in habitats suitable to them."
Besides, trappers argue, allowing them to take the animals would help "re-start the data stream" by providing carcass, tooth and DNA samples.
The precautionary principle
One wildlife advocate calls that argument "a red herring."
Trappers are hardly qualified to do bona fide scientific research, says Wendy Keefover-Ring, carnivore protection program director for Boulder-based Sinapu.
"They're trying to capture animals, kill them and sell the furs. Prices [for pelts] have been going up, so in the last couple of years, they have been really trying to kick the door open in terms of being able to have more recreational opportunities."
In the absence of adequate data, Keefover-Ring says, "we argue the precautionary principle. When you have a lack of information, it's possible to make a decision that's going to cause harm into the future."
Along those lines, the DOW has advised the commission to deny the trapping association's request. But it's impossible to know whether the 11-member body an autonomous board appointed by the governor will follow that recommendation. It could allow all of the requested species to be trapped, or none.
Or, it might embrace an alternative rubric developed by the division that analyzes each species in light of the need for conservation, the amount of damage it does, its economic benefit (to trappers) and the DOW's "best professional judgment."
Under that scenario, trapping of opossum, mink, long- and short-tailed weasels, marten and swift fox could be allowed, though marten and swift fox have been designated "sensitive species" by the U.S. Forest Service, and the swift fox is listed on the division's Web site as a species of "special concern."
Ackerman acknowledges that any decision is bound to leave someone unhappy.
"Lots of times, certain groups might not agree with the compromise that's been reached, but I think the system works because people care," he says. "Everybody cares about wildlife."
Comments about the proposed addition of species to the state's small game and trapping season may be:
e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org;
mailed to the Division of Wildlife, 6060 Broadway, Denver, CO 80216;
or faxed to the DOW at 303/291-7110.