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Trapping in Wisconsin state parks: Can it be done without hurting people and pets?
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Credit:Jennifer Downey

Carolyn Schueppel was walking her dog in a privately owned conservation area near Lake Waubesa where dogs were commonly, but illegally, let off the leash. She let Handsome, her three-year-old Border collie mix, stretch his legs, and he raced out of sight. She found him just beyond the conservancy border in a Conibear trap that had been set to catch and kill raccoons. Terrified, Schueppel struggled with the trap but was unable to open it, and was forced to watch Handsome die.

"It was horrible," Schueppel says. "It's still horrible. I'm struggling. The trapper set his trap on private land about 100 yards from where he was supposed to be. I don't want to walk in the woods by myself anymore."

A year later Fred Strand and his golden retriever, Hank, were hunting for grouse and woodcock in northern Wisconsin when Hank stepped on a foothold trap intended to catch wolves. This time, the dog's story ended happily. Strand is a wildlife biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and knew how to pry open the jaws of the trap. The foothold trap is the same design used by biologists who capture large predators to attach radio collars for studying their habits. Hank ran on without injury.

New legislation will open most state parks to trapping for the first time this April. These parks will also be open for trapping from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15. Under the law traps need to be set more than 100 yards from trails, park shelters and other high-traffic areas.

Conservationists say trapping is a useful tool for maintaining healthy wild animal populations. Trappers say they are harvesting a renewable resource to supply a global market for fur clothing. Opponents say trapping is unnecessary and inhumane.

Beyond the philosophical differences, are we going to see an increase in the number of pet injuries or deaths in the state parks that now allow trapping? And how safe are hikers who step off the trails?

No impact predicted

David Macfarland, a DNR research scientist, projects a low risk for both pets and their owners. "There is no history of hikers caught in traps in the state's national or state forests where trapping has been allowed," Macfarland says.

And John Olson, a DNR furbearer biologist, says that traps on dry land "won't have any impact on dogs at all." (Furbearers are any mammal species traditionally trapped for fur.)

He also doesn't see any problem with traps set in water to catch beaver and muskrats. Olson says that hunting dogs used for game birds and water fowl have been sharing the trapping landscape for years without much conflict, and that trappers are experienced in trying to avoid places where their traps could catch a dog.

"We are working constantly on techniques that will minimize incidental take," he says.

Olson, who is also chair of the trap research committee of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, notes that the field wardens in Wisconsin who monitor trapping have been keeping detailed records since 1997 of incidents that go wrong. "We have made some very important changes that have resulted in a drastic reduction in dog mortality," he says.

In three out of four cases, Olson says, dogs were caught in traps when there was a violation on the part of either the trapper or the dog owner. Further, an effort is being made by both the DNR and the Wisconsin Trappers Association to find ways to minimize problems even when people don't follow the rules.

The only dry-land traps that will be allowed in state parks are enclosed-trigger traps, sometimes called dog-proof traps. "They have come on the market in the last 15 years and are very exciting to us," Olson says. "They are exclusively for trapping raccoons, and it's virtually impossible to catch a dog in one. Only an animal with front foot dexterity can grasp the trigger and pull up."

Olson says the raccoon populations in the state are expanding with the advent of early-maturing varieties of grains like corn. Raccoons have also adapted well to cities.

The DNR does annual population estimates for a variety of game species and uses both hunters and trappers to help maintain sustainable population balances.

"We live in an environment that has been altered by man in which certain species do very well," says Jack Sullivan, who heads the department's science services and programs. "There is clearly a surplus of certain species on the landscape because they no longer have enough natural predators, and it is our responsibility to try and keep their numbers in balance."

Sullivan sees trapping as a part of healthy management. "We have some good trapping networks in the state, and people who are devoted to the sport of trapping. We get some of our best cooperative work for protection of furbearers from the people who harvest them."

Trapping is increasing

To obtain a license, trappers must take a 16-hour training course where they learn about the biology of the animals they are trapping as well as trapping regulations and techniques, ethics and some basics of outdoor safety.

The DNR Fur Trapper Survey of 2011-12 showed the number of trappers, the number of traps they set and the number of animals they caught are all increasing. The number of animals trapped during that time period by licensed trappers has been estimated at 588,000. That includes 151,400 raccoons.

Brad Lease, a trapper from Ridgeway, began trapping about seven years ago. Lease used to bow hunt but quit when gun hunting was allowed during bow season in his part of the state, a change made by the DNR in response to the presence of chronic wasting disease in the local deer herd. He didn't think it was fair to the deer, especially during the rutting season, when the animals are easy to shoot.

With trapping, he says, he can "be outdoors and enjoy everything you can see there. My son was 3 when I started trapping. I would bundle him up, put him in my trapping pack, and we'd go check traps."

Lease traps mostly raccoon and muskrat. "I've caught a couple of otters," he says, "but you have to have a tag in Wisconsin to keep an otter. I didn't have a tag, and both times I've been able to let them go unharmed.... That's an animal we need to see more of, so if it went off and bred that would be a good thing."

When his son was 8, Lease signed them both up for a trapping class. That's where he learned about dog-proof traps, and they started using them. "But catching the animal is only half the battle," says Lease. "You have to skin the animal and comb it out and flesh it, which is taking all the meat and fat off the hide, and then stretch it on a form and let it dry so it's ready to go to the auction."

Lease's son, who is now 10, puts his trapping earnings into his college fund. He averaged $23 a raccoon in the January auction of the North American Fur Auction.

Heart of the fur trade

The fur trade in Wisconsin goes back long before statehood. From 1650 to 1850 Wisconsin's economy was fueled by fur, especially beaver skins, which could be pressed into felt hats that kept their wearers warm and dry and were in great demand as far away as Moscow and Rome. By 1830 overhunting drove the furbearer populations almost to extinction.

Today Wisconsin is once again at the heart of the fur trade. The bulk of the international fur trade passes through the North American Fur Auction, held four times a year in Toronto. The company's website states that it auctioned nearly one million raccoon skins in the past year, adding "it is these very large quantities that make NAFA the preferred supplier to our buyers, especially the Chinese."

Many of these furs are funneled through the auction house's facility in Stoughton. The bulk of the furs processed there are farm-raised mink, which are devoured by the global fashion industry. Most Americans have become repelled by the idea of wearing fur, but it's still the material of choice in many cold parts of the world like Russia and China. Fur is seen as a renewable resource, while synthetic outerwear is not. In China's Heilongjiang province, daily highs drop below freezing in November, signaling the start offur's retailseason. International fur buyers and sellers watch global temperature predictions like stockbrokers watch the Federal Reserve.

Only 2% of the wild fur harvested in the United States stays here, according to Dennis Brady, who is the trapper liaison for NAFA in Stoughton.

Though he works for the auction house, Brady says money is the wrong reason to be a trapper.

"It's hard to break even when you add up your time and fuel. I'm in it to learn. I've been trapping for 46 years, and I do know a lot, but I learn something new every day.

"Once you become a trapper and start learning where and how these animals live, it wakes up your awareness. Just because you are a trapper doesn't mean you are out there just to kill everything."

Brady has been active in the state's trapper training program, which the Wisconsin Trappers Association and the DNR conduct in tandem. There are classes for first-time trappers and experienced ones. "On any given weekend in the summer months, there is probably a class going on someplace in Wisconsin," he says.

John Olson says that Wisconsin's trapper training program, which graduates about 1,000 participants a year, is respected by furbearer biologists throughout the U.S., including Alaska.


Wisconsin is also a leader in the nationwide trapping research committee that Olson chairs. "We look at each and every tool that is recommended to us," Olson says. "We work through cooperating state agencies and licensed trappers during their regulated trapping season. A technician witness goes with trappers and collects 25 observations on how animals respond to each particular trap. The type of habitat, the weather, the type of trap, the kind of bait used, whether a lure was used."

If an animal is caught, it is "dispatched humanely as a trapper would normally do," he adds. That means shot. "After it is dispatched it is tagged, bagged and frozen, and at the end of the season the specimens are shipped to veterinarians who have agreed to do the necropsies. These vets do an extremely detailed necropsy of each and every animal without knowing what kind of trap was used, so there can be no bias."

If vets see injuries, they document them using two different scoring systems established by the International Organization of Standards, which is accepted by 170 countries. At the end of the examination the information is reviewed, and based on the rating, a trap will pass or fail. It has to pass both injury scoring systems to be considered a humane trap.

For example, a foothold trap, which will not be permitted in Wisconsin state parks on land, is commonly used elsewhere to trap coyotes and wolves. "People think this is a monster trap with big teeth. But that kind of trap is not legal now," says Olson. "You see old bear traps like that hanging on the walls in hunting lodges, but today we only allow small foothold traps that have been modified to improve animal welfare. It may have an offset that closes with the jaws slightly apart so the animal is held but not pinched. Some have padded jaws. Some are laminated to spread out the clamping force."

In Wisconsin, says Olson, there were "61 reported foothold incidents with dogs since 1997, roughly four a year. Almost 70% of them had no injury, and 15% said they had minor injury. There was not a single mortality. That is the beauty of foothold traps, and yet that's the trap that people fear."

A common misconception is that dogs or wolves will chew off a foot caught in a foothold trap. Not so, says Adrian Wydeven, formerly carnivore specialist with the state wolf program and currently a DNR forest wildlife specialist. He has trapped and released wolves with foothold traps for research using the same type of traps.

"I've been involved in trapping dozens of wolves over 23 years, and I've not seen a single foot chew," Wydeven says. "It's tight on their foot, and they will pull at the trap, but I've also seen a trapped wolf lie down and rest."

Cruel and inhumane

There are many who do not believe that any trap can be considered humane. The Humane Society of the United States opposes trapping as well as fur ranches. The group objects to any killing of animals for the production of apparel and accessories. However, the Dane County Humane Society has created a position statement recognizing that "wildlife populations may exceed the carrying capacity of their natural habitat" and that "trapping may be a useful and necessary method for managing these populations through appropriately trained individuals and entities such as state wildlife agencies."

Cathy Holmes, president of the Dane County Humane Society board, explains the group's position. "Our purpose focuses on companion animals, and while we care about feral animals, they are not a primary issue for us," she says. "Because of the amount of trapping in Wisconsin, we felt it was important to do it in a humane manner."

The local opposition to trapping of any kind is led by Patricia Randolph, an artist who maintains a wildlife refuge on her property near Wisconsin Dells. She writes a nature column in The Capital Times called Madravenspeak every other week.

Randolph says the expansion of trapping on publicly purchased land will "in the most cruel and dark-ages way, destroy the rest of our wildlife." She urges those who oppose hunting and trapping to get involved in the state's Conservation Congress, which helps to determine regulations for hunting, trapping and fishing in Wisconsin.

The Humane Society of the United States sees no justification for any form of trapping except where live trapping benefits animals or their ecological systems.

Laura J. Simon, wildlife biologist for the group, says that "foothold traps cause animals to suffer tremendously. Wild animals panic when they are caught in a trap. Plus, if predators see a trapped animal, it can be eaten alive. Being caught in a trap is a pretty bad experience for most wildlife."

But unlike biologists and trappers, who provide data on the safety of trapping, opponents do not seem to have collected contrary evidence to prove their case.

Conflict between uses

State parks are not the only public areas recently opened to trapping. The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which has been providing funds to preserve natural areas and wildlife habitat since 1989, was changed in 2008 to require that any land purchased with money from its program be open for five nature-based activities: hiking, cross-country skiing, hunting, fishing and trapping.

The Nature Conservancy is one of the largest subscribers to the stewardship program. "We have purchased nearly a quarter of a million acres," says Casey Eggleston, director of state government relations. "Every county in the state has a project in the program. Municipalities all over the state have used it."

Eggleston says there was some "heartburn" at the beginning. "We didn't know the impact trapping might have on the things we were trying to protect, but we have become more comfortable. Trapping has not been particularly destructive. We haven't seen much impact on natural communities."

He says the most conflict has been between "recreational uses" of the land. "The change in the program didn't allow for refereeing conflicts between different users. How do dog walkers feel about trapping? How do trappers feel about a hiking trail being added where trap lines could be used? It has made different user groups feel uncomfortable.

"It's a complicated issue," Eggleston adds, echoing the concerns of most natural area managers. "We want as many people outdoors using these properties as possible. But to maximize usage may mean not all users can coexist on all properties, and it's only gotten more difficult in recent years."

Survival kit for enjoying nature during trapping season
The Sporting Heritage Act, which the state Legislature approved last spring, opens about two-thirds of state park property to hunting and trapping. Non-hunting and trapping park users are going to need to raise their consciousness to stay safe.

Be aware of where trapping in the park is allowed.

Check a map of the state park you are visiting beforehand. The areas closed to hunting and trapping are marked in gray. Trapping is not permitted within 100 yards of any designated-use area, including trails. Find maps for all state parks here.

Stay tuned to the trapping and hunting seasons.

There are two time periods where hunting and trapping are permitted in state parks: fall/winter and spring. In fall and winter, gun and archery hunting and trapping are allowed in open areas from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15. Archery hunting is allowed through the Sunday nearest Jan. 6. In spring, gun and archery hunting and limited trapping are allowed in open areas from April 1 through the Tuesday nearest May 3. For details on specific hunting and trapping seasons see the above link.

Learn what to do if your pet is caught in a trap.

The Lincoln County Humane Society has prepared a comprehensive guide (PDF) to freeing a dog from three common traps that are legal in Wisconsin: the foothold trap, snares and the body-gripping (Conibear) trap. Print it out and put it in your glove box.

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