Colorado's Trapping Ban Pits Old West Against New
DENVER — One side portrays a coyote struggling desperately to free itself from the steel jaws of a leg-hold trap. The other shows a sheep being viciously ravaged by a coyote. The two images frame a rancorous debate in Colorado over a ban on trapping.
The ban, to be voted on Nov. 5, symbolizes the widening gap between Old West politics and New West demographics, a complex clash between urban and rural values. It puts the decision on how predatory wildlife should be managed into voters' hands. If approved, the constitutional amendment would outlaw steel-jaw and restraining traps, snares, and poisons for recreation, commerce, or wildlife management.
Under current Colorado law, species classified as big game or furbearers may be trapped, snared, or poisoned if suspected of causing damage to livestock or crops. Furbearers - including coyotes, foxes, bobcats, badgers, muskrats, and raccoons - may also be trapped for commercial profit or recreation by licensed trappers. There are about 1,000 licensed trappers in the state, whom livestock owners often hire to reduce predation.
The ban mirrors one passed by Arizona voters in 1994. An anti-trapping initiative is also on the November ballot in Massachusetts. Nationwide, there are proposals to restrict hunting of bears, wolves, cougar, or lynx on the ballots in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, and Michigan.
A question of cruelty
For trapping opponents, the chief objection is the prolonged suffering an animal endures if the traps aren't checked often. "It's an issue of cruelty. We have a responsibility to these wildlife animals under our protection," says Bob Angell, founder of Colorado People Allied With Wildlife, a group that gathered 100,000 signatures to put the antitrapping referendum on the ballot.
Moreover, domestic pets and nontarget animals may find their way into traps. "Studies show that accidental victims outnumber targeted ones 2 to 1. This is indiscriminate killing," says Mr. Angell.
But opponents of the ban, notably ranchers and farmers, say that predators are the indiscriminate killers, and they need traps to minimize their losses.
"I don't feel it's any more inhumane for me to kill a coyote than for him to rip open one of my lambs," says David Yardley, an Erie, Colo., sheep farmer. In the past two months, he has lost three lambs to coyotes. "That's way too many," he says. "Killing coyotes is the last thing I'd like to do. But if coyotes never ate a lamb, it would not be an issue."
Predators cause over $3 million in damages to livestock a year, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Sheep and lambs are hardest hit, with losses of 26,000 head in 1995.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife estimates the state's 200,000 coyotes are the chief livestock predator here. Mountain lions and bears also claim a small percentage of sheep and cattle. Historically, the state has reimbursed ranchers for losses due to mountain lions and bears; no compensation is provided for losses from other predators.
Antitrapping advocates want livestock owners to use alternatives such as fences, guard dogs, bright lights, and noisemaking devices. Shooting predators, they say, is an acceptable last resort. But opponents insist that many ranchers already use these methods. "What they're proposing is not adequate for people to protect their livestock," says Sandy Snider of the Colorado Wool Growers Association, which represents 1,200 sheep farmers.
Exception to the rule
The initiative offers a limited exception for landowners to trap for 30 consecutive days a year - if they prove alternative methods have failed. Livestock owners say 30 days won't get them through calving and lambing season and question what it will take to qualify for the exception.
The polarized debate cuts across issues of ethics, economics, property rights, and time-honored Western practices. "People think of the West as populated by people who [live] off the land, but in the last 50 years, the demographics have changed," says Rob Edward of Sinapu, a Boulder-based wildlife group. While Colorado's 10,000 ranchers form less than 1 percent of the population, their political power is formidable. "We have ... a clash of cultural values," says Mr. Edward. "This is no way to solve your animal damage problems when you call yourself a civilized society."
But Diane Gansauer, director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation - a group of hunters and outdoor enthusiasts against the trapping ban - says, "An issue like this is very likely to pit urban against rural Colorado. The agricultural base is far outnumbered by people in urban areas ... who don't understand rural needs. There are complex, emotional issues that need to be thought through."