Who should decide if trapping should be banned – the public or wildlife professionals? Recent ballot initiatives on this and other issues have conservationists concerned.
By Ted Williams
From 1970 to 1975, the author was information officer with Massachusetts’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. This article first appeared in Audubon Magazine, June 1999, and is reproduced with the author’s permission.
On a mild February afternoon with corn snow slumping into slush and nuthatches rattling the bark of swamp maples, I stood beside Fort Pond Brook in Acton, Massachusetts, contemplating the fruits of wildlife management by ballot initiative. The brook, still swollen from torrential January rains, slid out from under a frozen marsh and churned white and silver through the stone frame of a washed-out bridge. There was otter scat on the bank, coyote tracks on the ice, and where the bridge had arched the flow in some lost age, a recently demolished beaver dam.
Until three years ago it was legal to kill beavers (“harvest” them, as the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife likes to say) by breaking their spines in the steel jaws of Conibear traps. You could then sell the pelts to fur buyers. But on November 5, 1996, voters approved a ballot initiative called the Wildlife Protection Act, which bans all body-gripping traps. Now the industrious beavers of Fort Pond Brook and similar habitats across the state can do their thing without sportsmen killing them for profit.
Before the vote, sports-men and wildlife managers mounted a clumsy defense of recreational trapping. When the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife hatched a news release listing the alleged deficiencies of the initiative, it was cited by the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance for using state funds to influence voters. The proponents, on the other hand, conducted a brilliant political campaign. They called themselves the ProPAW Coalition (Protect Pets And Wildlife); they ran TV ads showing a cat struggling in a leghold trap and a dog with a missing leg; they flooded the media with the mantra Ban Cruel Traps; and they won with 64 percent of the vote.
On its journey to wherever it is going, the world has left in the dust the pastime of trapping animals for fun and profit. The 16-member European Union has outlawed leghold traps and will ban fur imports from Canada, Russia, and the United States unless they do the same. According to independent surveys, 95 percent of Americans approve of fishing and 73 percent approve of hunting. Yet 59 percent disapprove of recreational trapping, and 74 percent want legholds banned. Not all of them are “antimanagement.” Wayne Pacelle, vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States and main architect of the Massachusetts Wildlife Protection Act, as well as similar ballot initiatives around the country, has it exactly right when he defines recreational trapping as “a vestigial practice” from the market-hunting era.
But now that the vestigial practice of harvesting beavers with body-gripping traps (the only kind practical for recreational trappers) has been outlawed in Massachusetts, a lot of people who voted to “ban cruel traps” aren’t so happy. Standing with me on the bank of Fort Pond Brook were Acton’s town manager, Don Johnson, and the chair of its board of health, Doug Halley. The previous month they’d been handed a petition signed by irate residents of the housing development built around (technically in) the marsh just before floodplain zoning was passed. The petition demanded the town do something about the buck-toothed rodents that were flooding property, compromising septic systems, and polluting wells.
Prior to 1996 the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife would tattle on nuisance beavers to licensed trappers, who would then conduct what Deblinger calls surgical strikes. “It was a great system,” he told me. “The trappers made a little money, the division collected a little license revenue, and the public got its beaver problems solved at no charge.” Even with trappers taking about 1,800 beavers a year, the population had been growing, but when the trap ban came in it exploded. In the past two and a half years the beaver population of Massachusetts has increased from 18,000 to almost 55,000.Also standing on the bank were three managers from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife: chief wildlife biologist Rob Deblinger, northeast-district biologist Erik Amati, and Tom French, head of nongame. Johnson asked them if it would be okay to rip out the dam. No, they said, not until spring, and then the beavers would just rebuild it anyway. Beavers don’t work in winter, and a sudden drop in the water level can freeze all manner of life hibernating in the mud or swimming above it – including, in this case, two state-listed species of special concern: the Mystic Valley amphipod (a shrimplike creature found only in eastern Massachusetts) and the spotted turtle.
When he signed on with Fisheries and Wildlife in 1994, Amati thought he’d landed a dream job. Now, instead of looking after wildlife that desperately needs attention, he spends almost all his time answering beaver complaints. Beaver control is effected not by recreational trappers but by professional exterminators. The “cruel” Conibears, which cost $18 each, weighed 2 pounds, and killed instantly, have been replaced by “humane,” 25-pound live traps that cost $250 each and hold the terrified animals for hours until they can be bashed on the head and thrown away. “We’ve reduced a resource to a pest,” intoned Amati.
The beaver dam offending the human residents of the marsh had been breached illegally by a person or persons impatient with the bureaucratic process. “It’s happening every day, all over the state,” said French. Not only are fish, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates at risk, but a sudden water-level drop can freeze shut the entrance holes of beaver lodges, in which case the occupants not-so-humanely starve to death.
Ballot initiatives, legal in 24 states, were rarely used to restrict hunting or trapping until this decade. From 1940 to 1990 only one succeeded. Since 1990, 11 of 19 have succeeded. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with trained professionals hired by the public to make the very decisions the public now insists on making for them. Donald Whittaker of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Steven Torres of the California Department of Fish and Game go so far as to write that ballot initiatives “may be the single greatest challenge to natural resources management that we will face individually and as a profession.” And Scot Williamson of the Washington, D.C.-based Wildlife Management Institute says this: “These votes are being cast in an information vacuum. The system can be manipulated by interests with the most money and the most advertising savvy. Petition signatures may be collected by paid circulators who work from lists of voters known to support or oppose certain issues. I don’t believe that’s a good way to make policy.”
Such information vacuums nurture what the framers of our constitution called the “tyranny of the majority.” Even proponents of Jeffersonian democracy considered ballot initiatives dangerous and undesirable. That’s why the United States is one of the few nations that does not permit them in national elections. As Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts’s delegate to the Constitutional Convention, declared in 1786: “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not lack virtue but are dupes of pretended patriots. … They are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false rumors circulated by designing men.”
Certainly there was no shortage of false rumors circulated by the proponents of Massachusetts’s recent trap ban. For example, the cat in the ProPAW ad was caught in a toothed bear trap of a type that has not been permitted in Massachusetts for 75 years. In fact, in all eight ProPAW film segments the “cruel traps” depicted were already illegal. Yet the state wildlife managers couldn’t set the record straight without risking further discipline by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
The Massachusetts experience was reprised in California last November, when 58 percent of the voters approved a leghold-trap ban called Proposition Four, thereby depriving wildlife managers of their only effective tool for controlling alien red foxes from the East. The foxes, which were brought to California in the 19th century, are in the process of wiping out such endangered birds as the California least tern, the California clapper rail, and the light-footed clapper rail, as well as the threatened western snowy plover. But some animal rights activists would gladly sacrifice whole species to prevent what they perceive as the inhumane treatment of individual animals.
Red foxes nearly wiped out a least tern colony on Anaheim Bay. In 1988 they took eggs from 44 of 69 least tern nests. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started trapping, in 1986, animal rights groups sued for an injunction, lost, then won an appeal in 1988 that forced the agency to prepare a full-blown environmental-impact statement, which cost $500,000. But as a result of the trapping, the tern population has rebounded to about 200 nests. Farther north, in the refuges around San Francisco Bay, foxes and cats had reduced California clapper rails from 1,500 in 1980 to 300 in 1991. In the past eight years the Fish and Wildlife Service has removed 458 foxes and 136 feral cats. As a result the rail population has more than doubled.Animal rights groups have told the California Department of Fish and Game that eastern red foxes are “native” because they’ve been in the state for more than a century and that they should not be killed but caught in humane box traps (even though they won’t go into them) and sent to “other states” (even though the other states have said no thanks). Five years ago noted ornithologist and ecologist Lloyd Kiff called alien red foxes the “litmus test that determines whether people are conservationists or animal rights people” and went on to make this prophetic observation: “If not checked soon, [red foxes] will account for more extinctions of bird species in the state than any other single factor in history. These people would rather have red foxes than all these ‘weird’ birds. If it were put to a vote, I don’t know whether we could win this one.”
Despite such successes, the agency ceased trapping everywhere in the state after Proposition Four was voted in. While the federal Endangered Species Act supersedes any state statute, the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t like to make waves and therefore has a policy of obeying state laws. On February 2 it resumed trapping, but only because the National Audubon Society won a temporary ruling that exempts federal endangered-species managers from the new law. Audubon attorneys are optimistic about the future but certain of nothing.
“All it takes to put an initiative on the ballot in California is 600,000 signatures from a paid gatherer and a million bucks,” says Glenn Olson, Audubon’s director of field operations. “If you put a hunting ban on the ballot, I think it might pass. There are just so many people with no sense about wildlife management.”
I asked the Humane Society’s Pacelle what he thought about that kind of talk. “Having Audubon against us was a nightmare,” he replied. “So we met with the society and said, ‘Listen, we’re not for predators killing threatened and endangered species.’ We presented a legal opinion that said the Feds could use whatever tools they wanted.” Basically, he hadn’t counted on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s timidity.
But not all humane activists are as rational as Pacelle, especially in California. Feral-cat-defense groups such as the Homeless Cat Network are bitterly opposed to trapping – even to save endangered species. They have successfully lobbied for laws that permit members to maintain and expand colonies of feral cats by feeding them outdoors. One mysterious cat benefactor calling herself “Feral-power” claims to have spent “about five hours every night and around $1,500 a month” over the past 10 years feeding feral cats. Last October, when Redwood City announced a plan to hire government trappers to control feral cats and other predators as part of a mitigation package allowing it to develop marsh habitat, feral-cat defenders stormed the city council meeting. Shrieking, weeping, and quoting Gandhi, they prevailed on the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a 30-day moratorium. “The cat people say cats are native because they’ve been here 50 years,” says Arthur Feinstein, director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. “When you tell them cats eat birds, they reply with all seriousness that this is a lie.”
Even if the court-ordered exemption for endangered-species managers turns out to be permanent, there is no provision in Proposition Four for wildlife research and restoration, much of which cannot happen without leghold traps. When legholds are used by people who know and care about what they’re doing, the animals rarely suffer serious injury. The wolves now thriving in Yellowstone National Park, for example, are routinely caught with leghold traps so they can be outfitted with radio collars.
More than 2,000 river otters have been caught in legholds in the South and released virtually unscathed in midwestern states where the species had been extirpated. Of 14 otters captured last year by graduate student Tasha Belfiore of the University of California, Davis, none suffered more than a slight bruise or abrasion. Belfiore had spent three years designing the study, which was to have assessed genetic damage to otters from pesticides used in the Sacramento Valley. Her study might have helped preserve otters and other species, but because of the trap ban she has had to abandon it. “If all the facts are out on the table and we still disagree, that’s fine,” she told me. “But to be making a decision based on misinformation isn’t fair.”
So does all this mean that conservationists should work to ban ballot initiatives? Yes, at least the ones that erode state management authority, argues a year-old alliance of sportsmen’s groups called the Ballot Issues Coalition (BIC). BIC contends that fish and wildlife have traditionally been held in public trust by the states and that management of these resources is therefore a “non-delegable duty” that cannot be relinquished to voters. BIC and the National Trappers’ Association vow to file suits to overturn ballot initiatives in Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington.
But what recourse will they have when game and fish agencies mismanage game species and then stifle public debate? It happens all the time. “Few people in America think ballot initiatives are the best way to decide wildlife-management issues,” observes bear biologist Tom Beck. “But ballot initiatives are a form of populism, and historical analysis suggests that populist approaches work when the masses feel government is not listening or is dominated by a small vested interest.”
Beck learned this the hard way. In the early 1990s he and his colleagues at the Colorado Division of Wildlife, along with an unlikely alliance of sportsmen and animal rights activists, moved to outlaw springtime bear hunting. In this season, hunters usually bait bears by hanging bags of garbage on trees. They then check to see which ones are ripped up, stake out the site, and shoot the bear. Among the trophies taken in the spring of 1992 were 25 lactating females. The orphaned cubs probably died, but the biologists, who depend on hunting as a tool for managing bears as well as such ungulates as deer and elk, were less worried about the bear population than the image of Colorado hunters. As Beck inquired in an essay for Outdoor Life magazine, “How fulfilling is it to shoot a bear with its head in a barrel of jelly doughnuts?”
Beck and his colleagues argued that the ban would shield hunters committed to fair chase from at least some of the floggings they receive at the hands of the ill-informed public. However, the policy-setting state wildlife commission didn’t see it that way. It went to the bunker, ranting about a conspiracy by animal rights fanatics and admonishing the biologists for spinelessness. Instead of outlawing the discredited and moribund sport of garbaging for bears, it extended the spring season by two weeks, thumbing its nose at sportsmen, professional wildlife managers, and the public. So in November 1992, Colorado voters banned spring bear baiting. That’s why ballot initiatives are needed.
Hurtful ballot initiatives are largely avoidable, if only game and fish agencies would smarten up. “Historically, wildlife-management professionals have had very poor people skills,” comments the vice-president of the Wildlife Management Institute, Lonnie Williamson. “They need good information and education departments that don’t just talk to the public but listen to it. Yet with most of the states, information and education is last to get money and first to get cut.”
Even more important than good information is good credibility, but wildlife managers are adept at squandering it. For instance, the California Department of Fish and Game didn’t have much credibility with which to defend trapping after it had unsuccessfully defended cougar hunting – against a legislative ban in 1971 and against ballot initiatives reaffirming the ban in 1990 and 1996. Instead of telling the truth – that there was no biological reason not to hunt cougars – it tried to frighten people with tales about how a hunting ban would result in more cougars attacking humans (this, despite the fact that human-cougar interactions are rare and hunting has never deterred them, anyway.)
If managers give the public a chance to make itself heard and if they make sure it understands the agency’s mission, they won’t have to worry about bad ballot initiatives. But frequently the public gets cut out of the loop. In Massachusetts, for example, there were two other parts of the ProPAW initiative. One, which failed to attract mainstream environmentalists, prohibited the traditional and not unsporting use of dogs to hunt Massachusetts’s well-managed bears. But the other, which won the avid support of the environmental community, did away with the archaic requirement that five of seven members of the Fisheries and Wildlife Board must have been licensed hunters, fishers, or trappers for at least the previous five years.
It’s true that in states like Massachusetts, sportsmen, not the general public, pay for wildlife management. But that’s why “nongame” species (the 99.99 percent of life that can’t legally be shot) receive relatively little attention. The men and women who staff these agencies are trained, hired, and legally mandated to manage all species. But when they are denied general funds and depend instead on the paltry revenue from sales of hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses, sportsmen tend to dominate the decision-making and frequently injure even their own interests.
Beck, an avid hunter as well as a biologist, says the argument that sportsmen should call the shots because “they have paid the bills” is a “knee-jerk defense.” He declares, “Yes, we have paid the bills, but not for altruistic reasons. We pay because we want something to shoot! We should pay the bill and not demand control of the management process.”
Gerard Bertrand, who as president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society committed the organization to help sponsor the ProPAW initiative and write the board-reform measure, puts it this way: “The best boards are the ones that recognize the interest of the public and use that interest to save habitat.” As a case in point Bertrand cites Arkansas, where there is no special-interest requirement for service on the state game and fish board and where every citizen who cares about fish and wildlife – not just sportsmen – can participate in wildlife decision-making. In 1996 voters approved a visionary ballot initiative that nets the Game and Fish Commission $17 million annually from an 1/8-cent sales tax on all goods. The commission polled the public on how it wanted the funds spent. The answer, now policy, was: law enforcement, habitat purchase, and education.
States like Arkansas don’t have to contend with the degree of anti-blood-sport sentiment prevalent in Massachusetts and other highly urban states. Still, the Arkansas experience teaches that when resource agencies educate the public and then involve it in policy-making, great things happen – for fish, for wildlife, for sportsmen, and for nonsportsmen.