Trap Sheet

Why was it so hard for these upstanding, law-abiding citizens to get arrested?

It wasn't the first time Angell had petitioned the wildlife division to protect animals. He had aggressively supported Amendment 10, the 1992 initiative that outlawed the state's spring bear hunt. The success of that measure had convinced him that voters were ready for more restrictions on the way Colorado's wildlife was managed. Angell thought a trapping ban was a reasonable request, and one that was long overdue.

"Until I got into this, I wasn't even aware that some types of traps were still used," he says today. "Trapping is an indiscriminate, inhumane way of killing animals. If you don't believe me, come over and I'll show you some videotapes."

Coincidentally, the wildlife division was already in the process of reconsidering its trapping rules. After a year's worth of public meetings and debate, in July 1995 the agency settled on a series of half-step reforms. Leaning heavily on a survey taken primarily among Front Range residents that showed most people wouldn't miss trapping, the wildlife commission (whose governor-appointed members oversee the DOW and make policy) enacted a new set of laws that it hoped would promote kinder, gentler trapping. It required padded-jaw traps and restraining snares -- snares that hold but do not choke and kill animals. In addition, the commissioners reduced the type of animals that could be legally trapped, from eighteen fur-bearing species to eight (the red fox, raccoon, badger, coyote, striped skunk, muskrat, beaver and bobcat).

John Jacob Gredig
David Rehor
John Jacob Gredig
Don't shoot: Robert Angell's Amendment 14 stopped most trapping in Colorado, but the issue isn't dead yet.
David Rehor
Don't shoot: Robert Angell's Amendment 14 stopped most trapping in Colorado, but the issue isn't dead yet.

Angell was unimpressed, and upon learning that the wildlife division would not be banning trapping outright, he decided that he would do it himself. He contacted his old friends from the Amendment 10 fight -- they still had a mailing list -- and he and his wife, Elisa, a retired librarian, formed Colorado People Allied With Wildlife (PAWW) to take the issue directly to the voters. (The couple first called their group Coloradans Against Trapping and Snaring, but, Angell recalls, "too many people thought we were fighting for cats.")

The group began meeting in living rooms, signing up volunteers and collecting money. Angell's collection of grisly videos began appearing in heartbreaking television spots. By the time PAWW was finished, a cadre of 100 core volunteers had collected 102,000 signatures -- nearly double the number required to put the issue before voters -- and a quarter of a million dollars, much of it contributed by the Angells themselves. "Amendment 14 ruled our lives for a year and a half," Angell says.

The fight was close until the end. On that November election night, Angell remembers, "a lot of people went to bed thinking we'd lost." But as morning broke, the results showed Amendment 14 passing by just over a 2 percent margin -- hardly a landslide, but enough to change the state constitution. A precinct map would show support for the initiative appearing as a T, following I-25 along the Front Range and then horizontally along the urban and resort centers of I-70. The measure went down heavily in rural counties.

"In the urbanized areas, it's recognized that trapping and snaring are extremely inhumane," Angell explains. "People just had to be shown what was going on."

"Let me offer some perspective," says Todd Malmsbury, chief spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "Before Amendment 14 passed in 1996, we sold fewer than 1,000 trapping licenses a year -- mostly to part-time hobbyist trappers. In 1998 we sold a quarter-million elk licenses. I'm not saying that trapping wasn't important. What I'm saying is that trapping was a minor activity."

Although some trappers took animals mainly for the fur, that market has been depressed in recent years as fur coats have gone out of style, and much of the trapping activity in Colorado before November 1996 was done to control "nuisance animals." The majority of these are coyotes, which prey on livestock, and beaver and muskrat, which cause problems in rural waterways, where they block up or destabilize irrigation ditches and farm ponds.

Typically, prior to 1996, a trapper would remove a troublesome beaver using one of two types of traps. The first is a traditional leghold, which grips the animal's leg when tripped. If it's set properly, the jaws then hold the beaver under water, drowning it in two or three minutes. The second commonly used device is called a Conibear trap, which is essentially a giant mousetrap: When it's tripped, a jaw snaps over the animal's back or neck or head -- in theory, killing it instantly.

Amendment 14 effectively ended such trapping of nuisance animals. (An exemption in the law allows a bona fide farmer or rancher to trap thirty contiguous days every year, but only if he can prove he has exhausted other methods of controlling the animals.) That doesn't mean the problem of nuisance animals has disappeared, of course. And for those who want to get rid of unwanted critters -- say, a new homeowner whose trees on the riverbank are being decimated by beavers, or a rancher whose flock is being attacked by coyotes -- there are still ways to do it.

First, a property owner can simply shoot the troublesome animal. Indeed, in the wake of the new trapping restrictions, that is usually what a Division of Wildlife field officer will recommend when he receives a phone call from someone asking what can be done about four-legged pests. Yet guns are not always a good solution. In addition to being potentially inhumane -- not everyone is a good shot, particularly when it comes to small, moving targets -- firearms present a number of specific problems.

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