When most New Mexicans think about trapping, they probably recall history lessons and Mountain Man historical re-enactments. After all, fur-trapping parties frequently moved through the territory at the turn of the 19th century, following the Gila River or moving through the area in search of beavers in the Colorado River or Utah’s Green River. When Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1821, New Mexico was opened to fur trappers and traders who previously had not been welcome. Taos, in fact, became a major trade center and, from his home there, Kit Carson set off frequently on fur-trapping expeditions throughout the West.
Today, many New Mexicans aren’t even aware trapping still occurs: In 2005, a Research & Polling, Inc. survey commissioned by the Sierra Club showed that only 41 percent of voters statewide knew trapping was legal on public lands in the state.
Though legal, even the best-laid plans by government trappers have led to problems—or, it’s fair to say in at least one instance, a fiasco. During the summer of 2008, after a mountain lion killed a Pinos Altos resident and fed on the body, employees with the Department of Game and Fish and the US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services laid snares to catch two felines in the area.
According to a Department of Game and Fish press release, employees set snares on public lands around Pinos Altos, placing signs on area roads and trails, and in public places. Snares caught the lions, but at least three other animals were trapped as well. Within one snare, a horse was caught; the horse threw its rider and both were injured. A second snare nabbed a javelina, which attracted a bear. While feeding on the javelina, the bear became entangled in yet another snare. Seriously injured, the bear was euthanized.
To critics, trapping is objectionable for numerous reasons. Some people learn about trapping after a pet is caught in a trap; others consider it an ethical issue or a matter of cruelty. Animals often aren’t killed instantly, meaning they experience fear, panic and, sometimes, dehydration. And, even though trappers are required to check traps within 24 hours, captured animals are vulnerable to other predators.
Horning himself raises questions over New Mexico’s lack of bag limits, long trapping
season and the Game Commission’s unwillingness to open the regulation to public review.
During the 2007-2008 bobcat trapping season, which ran from November through mid-March, 4,240 of the animals were killed. That’s more than twice the number killed in Colorado; in Arizona, only 1,000 were killed.
In 1996, Colorado voters approved a ban on leg-hold and instant-kill traps, snares and poison. (Government officials can still trap nuisance animals, and a 30-day state-regulated season on private lands remains.) In Arizona, citizens also voted to ban the use of body-crushing traps and snares on public lands.
During New Mexico’s 2008-2009 season, the Department of Game and Fish reported that 3,218 bobcats were killed. Although that lower number might make advocates happy, it represents uncertainty: Without population data, no one knows if the lower harvest number means there are simply fewer animals left to kill.
Not only that, but the numbers are incomplete: Although 2,123 licenses were sold, only 1,238—or 58 percent—responded to the department’s mandatory harvest survey.
For Horning, however, the final straw came when he learned how many rare wolves in southern New Mexico had lost legs to traps set in the Gila National Forest.
For more than a decade, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has struggled to re-build the Mexican gray wolf population in southern New Mexico and Arizona, which, by the mid-20th century, had been nearly hunted and trapped out of existence. With seven known wolves surviving in the wild, in 1976, the federal government listed wolves for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Wolves were captured and bred and, in 1998, the Fish and Wildlife Service re-introduced the first of the animals to the wild. The program has seen its share of politically induced woes—including a 2003 operating procedure that requires biologists to remove from the wild or kill wolves known or suspected to have preyed on livestock—and the wolf population has yet to achieve the 100-member goal set by the Fish and Wildlife Service in its 1982 recovery plan.