“It was really easy to see what you have to do to make it open, but I’m not strong enough,” Ray says. She experimented with the trap, wanting to know if she could open it in case she ever encountered another. She stood upon it, pressing down and trying to open it—then noticed a chain attached to a stake that was driven into the ground.
Realizing that the trap was stuck in the frozen ground—it was early December—the seriousness of what might have happened hit her.
“We were an hour-and-a-half away from the car, and a hour’s drive away from help,” she says. “What would I have done? Left my dog in the trap?”
Until then, Ray had never realized trapping still occurred. But the incident chilled her and, as a result, she started learning about wildlife trapping in New Mexico and the international fur industry it supports.
Bobcats are the most lucrative species trapped in New Mexico—their pelts sell for approximately $500 each, though some in recent years have gone for $1,000. Meanwhile, fox skins sell for between $10 and $40. They aren’t usually tanned or processed in New Mexico, she learned, nor are they sold here. Rather, the final products usually end up in Eastern Europe or Asia.
New Mexico not only has the longest trapping season of any state in the West, trappers here also kill more bobcats than within any other state.
“It’s like a macabre gold rush,” Ray says, noting that trapping differs from hunting in significant ways. Big game hunters can’t earn a profit off the meat or skins they procure, but trappers can. Trappers don’t have limits or bag counts; there are no rules on how many traps someone can set. And there is also no way to control, or even know, which animals might be caught.
“I’ve heard the traps called the ‘drift nets of the forest,’” Ray, a volunteer wildlife chairwoman for the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club, says. “And I just think, ‘How can we still do that today?’”
It is legal to set unmarked traps on public lands throughout New Mexico, including on state trust lands, national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands. Now, the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians, which is one of three groups that has repeatedly requested that the state revisit the law—known as the furbearer regulation—is poised to issue new challenges against the regulation.
The furbearer regulation applies to a number of species: raccoon, badger, weasel, all species of fox, ringtail, bobcat, beaver, muskrat and nutria. Each of those fall into a season during which trappers can kill the animals, while two other furbearers, coyote and skunk, can be killed anytime throughout the year. Annually, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish issues permits to approximately 2,000 commercial trappers.
“Because there are only 2,000 trappers, chances are good you will not run into a trap,” Ray, who leads Sierra Club outings and still encourages people to spend time in the backcountry, tells SFR. “But once you have an experience like that, it makes you look at the places you go in a totally new light—the woods are supposed to be a place we can go to feel safe.”