TRAPPED! In the shadows of wildlife management
First in a two-part series. Next week, find out what Wildlife Services’ investigation turned up and learn more about Wyoming’s obsession with hating the coyote.
Late last year, Wyoming trapper Jamie Olson, from Douglas, posted pictures on Facebook of his trained Airedales attacking a coyote caught in a leg-hold trap. One sequence of photos shows his dogs biting a defenseless coyote; later pictures show a disemboweled coyote scattered on the ground. The caption read: “My Airedale, Bear, with a sheep-killing female.”
Several animal-welfare advocates got a hold of Olson’s photos and began spreading them on the Internet. Olson deactivated his Facebook account but it was too late. The pictures and story went viral last November. Wildlife activists demanded Olson explain why he was using his dogs to finish off trapped coyotes. Olson admitted to one reporter that he had made a “big-ass mistake.” He claimed the photos were taken out of context. His bosses began an investigation that is still ongoing today.
The photos appeared in an album Olson entitled “work.” Olson is employed by an obscure federal agency called Wildlife Services, a division of APHIS under the USDA, where he pulls down mid-30s for an annual wage. His official job title is “Biological Science Technician.” He is, in reality, a professional coyote killer.
When he’s not killing coyotes for a paycheck, Olson runs a website devoted to advising other hunters and trappers on how to whack ’em and stack ’em. “We’re all in this coyote obsession together,” Olson states on his website. Olson also organizes regional coyote hunting tournaments, where sharpshooters pay a fee to gun down coyotes for a chance to win the pot for “putting up the most fur.”
Olson’s photos sparked immediate outrage throughout the wildlife-advocate community and raised several questions. What is Wildlife Services and what does anyone know about the secretive agency? And more importantly, can trapping be done humanely and do citizens of the modern West have the stomach for it?
It can take days for a coyote or wolf to die in a neck snare. Wolves, particularly, have developed thick musculature to protect their trachea and common carotid arteries so they often do not die of suffocation and do not die quickly. Cause of death in most neck snare traps is “exploded brain.”
Trappers call them “jelly heads.” The choke snare constricts the jugular vein on the outside of the neck, cutting off blood returning to the heart; meanwhile, the carotid artery keeps pumping blood into the brain, causing it to swell in size and eventually rupture. According to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife scientist Wally Jakubas, about a third of the 94 snared coyotes he checked one season died this way. IF&W also reported 70 percent of coyotes caught in neck snares took three days to die.
“I think it is also safe to say that this is an unpleasant death,” Jakubas wrote in his report. “Anyone who has had a migraine knows what it feels like to have swollen blood vessels in the head. To have blood vessels burst because of pressure must be excruciating.”
Longtime Maine trapper Bill Randall said the sight of an animal that died in a neck snare was the goriest visual display of animal cruelty he had ever seen.
Many hardcore trappers won’t use neck snares. They catch too many non-targeted animals including deer, federally protected eagles, and people’s dogs. Leg-hold traps are the most common in Wyoming. Steel-jawed holds with teeth are still used by many trappers, though most are going with padded leg-holds – a move precipitated more by greed than grace.
Padded jaws with the proper offset “allow blood to flow around the paw so that the foot has feeling and does not go dead,” said Clint Locklear, a respected trapper and owner of Predator Control Group. Once a coyote loses feeling in his foot and lower leg, it will often chew off its own limb to free itself. Trappers hate seeing nothing but a bloody paw in their trap.
Quick-kill body traps or conibears are also used extensively throughout Wyoming and the West. They are predominantly set for beaver, which are usually killed quickly. Conibear traps are often lethal for dogs as well, as most owners lack the knowledge or strength to free their pet before it suffocates.
By-catch: the unintended by-product of trapping
After struggling in vain to free his dog caught in a #220 conibear, Doug Snyder couldn’t stand to see his 9-year-old Lab suffer any longer. He shot her. “Polka Dot” was one of at least six dogs killed in traps last fall in Minnesota. In December, John Reynolds, a trapper himself, was setting a fox trap when his companion dog, a 50-pound springer spaniel, wandered away and was nearly cut in two by a conibear. He started a petition to outlaw body-gripping traps on public land in Minnesota.
The biggest complaint from anti-trappers and trappers alike is the unintended victim. Non-targeted catches are par for the course and go vastly underreported.
“I’ve never used snares at all because they are very nonselective. They catch everything that will go through them. Snares are very dangerous,” said Carter Niemeyer. The experienced trapper and author of “Wolfer” was one of the experts who helped reintroduce the grey wolf to the Lower 48 and later became one of the feds top “hit men” in trying to control their predacious behavior toward livestock. “And with a higher number of people using public lands, well, if trapping and snaring on public lands remains legal then these are the conditions you will be living with now: Keep your dog on a short leash and stay in the middle of the trail. Because a dog is going to take you right to a trap.”
Last fall, Red Top Meadows resident Linnea Gardner lost sight of her husky-shepherd mix briefly at the Rock Creek trailhead. When she followed his tracks she saw him standing perfectly still and staring at her. She called. He didn’t move. Gardner approached the dog and then she saw the cable around its neck. It was so tight the dog could not bark.
Gardner freed her dog and soon after ran into the coyote trapper that had set the snare. He was polite and agreed to remove that and two other traps he had placed in the area after Gardner, a 12-year resident of the area, informed him the trail was quite popular with hikers and their dogs. The trap was baited with meat and less than 15 feet off the trail. It was perfectly legal.
Gardner advises other dog owners to beware. “They could be anywhere out there,” she said. “Get yourself a pair of wire cutters.”
Actually, tampering with or removing a trap (which, by law must be identified with the trapper’s name and address) is illegal.
Pelt prices are on the upswing. And favorable conditions in the fur trade means recreational trapping is on the rise during a sluggish economy. The backcountry is also seeing increased use from hikers, bikers and backpackers. In Teton County, there is almost nowhere to set a trap in an area remote enough to ensure people or pets would not stumble upon it.
Randall, who trapped in Maine through the 1970s and ’80s, remembers his last days of trapping. He eventually quit when it became evident that he was more likely to catch a pet than a pelt. In his final season, he caught 28 house cats and several dogs. He was able to save the dogs but, on the advice of the local game warden, he destroyed the cats and never told anyone about it.
Wildlife News reported two cougars, a bobcat and a coyote were found in traps set for wolves just one month into the most recent wolf-trapping season in Montana. By comparison, seven wolves were reported trapped.
Even Wildlife Services, the agency that kills five million animals every year in the name of “managing” wildlife, admitted to some trapping mistakes. According to their own record keeping, WS has killed more than 50,000 non-targeted animals in traps since 2000, representing 150 species including some endangered, and 1,100 domestic dogs.
Birds of prey are also a common unintended catch. It’s widely assumed a great majority of bald and golden eagles caught in traps are never reported.
“We’ve seen eagles trapped in both leg-holds and snares,” said Bryan Bedrosian of Craighead Beringia South in Kelly, Wyo. “Anytime there is visual bait that is a potential food source you are going to attract eagles, especially in late winter as their diet shifts to carrion. We’ve seen several eagles with one leg that I would attribute to leg traps. One bird we had tagged with satellite got caught in the snare in Montana. The trapper actually reported it, probably because he saw the transmitter.”
Bedrosian suggests trappers set traps in areas where eagles can’t land and use only scent as an attractant because eagles rely exclusively on visual stimulus when searching for food.
Coup de grace
Many ethical trappers deal a quick and merciful deathblow to animals suffering in their traps. Too many do not.
“Gunshot is the quickest way to dispatch them,” Niemeyer said. “With wolves, when they were listed, we injected them with an immobilizing drug and had them removed to a vet where they were euthanized. It was a touchier subject back then. Once rules were lessened they were dispatched with a gunshot or we rapped them on the bridge of the nose.”
To keep the pelt from damage or bloodstains, many trappers will not shoot a coyote, wolf or fox. Some use catch poles similar to what animal control officers use to strangle a coyote to death. Others use a lead pipe to deliver a crushing blow to the larynx. For smaller coyotes and foxes, many trappers simply stomp on or press their knee into the animal’s chest to crush the heart and lungs.
(WARNING! Graphic footage may not be suitable for some.)
As brutal as these methods are, using trained dogs to attack and kill a coyote caught in a leg-hold trap strikes most civilized members of the general public as repulsive.
“That episode is totally amoral, unprofessional and inhumane,” Franz Camenzind said, referring to the Olson photographs. Camenzind is a wildlife biologist who has done extensive research on coyotes and wolves. “It shows an unbelievable amount of disrespect for his job, his profession and life in general.”
Former Wildlife Services trapper Gary Strader said the photos did not surprise him. He said animal abuse is very common inside the agency and claims he and others were regularly told to shut up about what they did in the field. He was fired in 2009.
Niemeyer, who also worked for Wildlife Services, said he was bothered by what he saw in Olson’s photographs. “I would say it is not normal. In my 26 years, I never witnessed anyone sic their dog on a coyote.”
Trappers often defend the use of trained dogs as a means to protect themselves from injured coyotes that could turn ferocious, or help track down wounded animals that slip away. Camenzind doesn’t buy that logic.
“I trapped 24 coyotes for research,” Camenzind said. “I went up to them to ear tag them carrying a choke pole which I really didn’t need. When approaching, from 10 or 20 yards out, the coyote is jumping and snapping and snarling. But when you get closer, say 10 feet, they start cowering and curl up in submissive behavior and won’t even look you in the eye. The vast majority you could push over with a stick. When people say how vicious they are I’m gonna call ‘bullshit’ on them.”
Time for a change?
In Wyoming, trap locations do not have to be signed in any way and often aren’t. Many trappers are reluctant to tip off possible poachers or an intolerant public. By law, trappers are required to visually check leg-hold traps every 72 hours. Body-grips and strangle snares need to be checked once a week and, depending on what day of the week the trap was set, could go 13 days between checks. When asked if any animal would survive that long stuck in a neck snare, Wyoming Game & Fish division supervisor Tim Fuchs said, “not very likely.”
Camenzind and Niemeyer recommend posted signs and 24-hour checks for all traps.
“The public is entitled to have some kind of signing,” Niemeyer said. “And eventually we will get to a 24-hour trap check. Western states will fight that tooth-and-nail. But the stress and lack of water can do irreparable harm in 72 hours. Common sense will lead society to a 24-hour trap check, eventually. A lot of states have gone there already.”
Fuchs said trapping rules are reviewed every three years. They are not due for public comment again until 2016. He advised concerned Wyoming citizens to write their state representatives if they want state statutes changed, or contact his office if there is a strong desire to see stricter regulation or a ban on trapping altogether in certain heavily trafficked areas.