According to Horning, over the lifespan of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program, 14 wolves have been caught in traps—there are currently 42 known wolves in the Southwest—and some have had their legs amputated.
“Last year, there was a revelation that there is a pack, the Middle Fork Pack, and the alpha male and alpha female each have only three legs,” Horning says. “And it’s because they were caught in traps.”
The Middle Fork Pack, which occupies territory in the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico, has three collared members.
Leaning toward the map above his desk, Horning taps the southwestern corner of New Mexico, where a dark green patch of ink represents the historical home of wilderness, and embodies the legacy of hunter and conservationist Aldo Leopold.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Leopold helped establish a program to exterminate predators from New Mexico. The goal was to improve hunting conditions, but the extirpation of predators—including wolves, mountain lions and jaguars—led deer populations to burgeon out of control. By the late 1920s, there was mass starvation among deer in the Gila. After watching the consequences of his actions play out on the ground, Leopold’s thinking about the role of predators in maintaining an ecological balance evolved into a land ethic people still emulate today.
Not only that, but Leopold also urged the US Forest Service to designate 750,000 acres of the Gila National Forest as wilderness—that was in 1924, 40 years before Congress passed the Wilderness Act. Today, the Gila encompasses three wilderness areas, and its most remote areas are home to the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, the boundaries of which re-introduced wolves cannot stray from without capture—but where traps and snares may be laid.
“Instead of leading the way—and perhaps even invoking Aldo Leopold and coming up with an ethically grounded paradigm that recognizes the central role of carnivores in influencing ecosystems—this is driven by the commercial interests of trappers,” Horning says. “To me, things like the longest season, the most bobcats killed: Those are just symptoms of how out of touch we’ve become in this state and, once again, we’re the worst of the worst.”
In August 2009, WildEarth Guardians, the Sierra Club and Animal Protection of New Mexico submitted six requests to the state Game Commission. These included: opening the furbearer regulation to public review; studying populations and creating management plans for bobcats and gray foxes; halting trapping season for kit foxes and swift foxes; requiring trappers to report their kills or face a loss of privileges; ensuring traps and snares are not placed in areas where non-target species, such as wolves, can be injured or killed; and mandating that traps be placed 50 yards from public trails and roads.
Horning says that the requests, as well as meetings with Department of Game and Fish officials, have been met with silence. Now, the nonprofit is drawing up a petition to the US Forest Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, asking the two agencies to ban trapping and snaring within the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area.
Federal land management agencies generally defer to states to manage wildlife populations on federal lands, but agencies can override state authority if the action is in the public’s interest. In the case of the wolves, the Fish and Wildlife Service could amend its reintroduction rule, Horning says, or the Forest Service could amend its forest plan for the Gila.
“It just pisses me off, generally, that trapping occurs on public lands with no restrictions—but it really irks me that, even when you have a federally endangered species, the state doesn’t see that it makes sense to restrict trapping from some areas,” Horning tells SFR. “That’s where reason falls away.”
But to the Department of Game and Fish, trapping is reasonable—it’s one of the tools used so the department can carry out its mandate, according to Tod Stevenson, the department’s director. That mandate, he says, is to offer recreational and harvest opportunities, but also to manage and sustain wildlife populations for future generations. The department sells trapping licenses but also traps animals for other reasons; when biologists need to put radio collars on wolves, for instance, they must use traps to catch the canines.
Furthermore, he points out, there are at least 40,000 elk hunters in New Mexico each year, while the department sells perhaps 5,000 furbearer licenses each year. Some of those people are commercial trappers—though he doubts a trapper can make a living off of selling furs only from New Mexico—but many are people who, for example, cull coyotes and buy a furbearer license just in case they have the opportunity to harvest a fox.
“When you want to put this in somewhat of a perspective, I will tell you that wolves—bringing back that large a predator—there are some who want us to do this, but there are lots and lots of people out there who are adamantly opposed to the restoration of wolves,” he says.
Stevenson also acknowledges that trapping is one issue that may have some impact on the wolf restoration program, but says it is certainly not the biggest—or even one of the biggest—impediments to the restoration of wolves.
Additionally, the Department of Game and Fish and the Game Commission have crafted rules over time to ensure that the best possible management practices are incorporated. Trap sizes are limited, and traps must be placed away from trails, roads and campsites.
“We’ve done a lot of work on those rules to put a trap out there on the ground that is effective, but at the same time is the most humane, so that you can go and turn one of these animals loose,” Stevenson says, adding that frequent trap inspections are required.
“The rules assure that we know who is out there on the ground, and that folks are inspecting those traps a minimum of every 24 hours to assure that those animals are not caught there and then left, and also if we’ve got a non-target species, they can be released.”
Trapping doesn’t actually occur everywhere in the state: “There are lots and lots of places you can’t effectively go trapping because it’s just not feasible,” he points out.
Trapping activity also varies from season to season, depending on the market value of the hides, he says, “If the market isn’t there, then the amount of gasoline and time doesn’t make it worthwhile for folks to go out there and do that,” he says. “And it’s not across 100 percent of New Mexico.”