Trap Sheet

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

Once rare sights on a ballot, today public votes on how to manage wildlife have become increasingly common. In 1996, residents of eight states considered issues ranging from what was the ethical way to hunt wolves (Alaska banned shooting them from an airplane) and bears (Massachusetts and Washington banned using bait and hounds, while Michigan and Idaho kept those methods) to trapping (Massachusetts banned even possessing traps). Since then, California and Arizona residents have voted to ban trapping, Alaskans have banned wolf snares, and Ohioans have contemplated (and kept) dove hunting, among other things.

To supporters of the measures, the ballot box is the last resort for altering the way animals are managed. Too often, they say, the concerns of people who want to protect animals (a growing number, particularly in cities) are overlooked by the agendas of those who like to kill them. In fact, most state wildlife agencies still are supported, either in part or in full (like Colorado's), by the sale of hunting and fishing tags. Last year the Colorado DOW earned $55 million from hunting and fishing licenses and $10 million from the federal excise tax on hunting and fishing equipment. It is no accident that wildlife officials have opposed the majority of ballot initiatives that restrict the taking of animals. In 1992, the Colorado Wildlife Commission officially came out against managing wildlife through public ballots.

Wildlife administrators argue that they have good reasons for not wanting to manage animals by popular vote, reasons that extend far beyond their budgets. To begin with, they point out that initiatives are prejudiced. Voters tend to rally around animals that are big and fuzzy and pleasurable to look at. A sizeable block of the voting public has yet, for example, to coalesce in favor of protecting common slugs, which often suffer slow, cruel deaths at the hands of gardeners. "We manage ecosystems, not specific animals," notes the DOW's Croonquist.

Rabble-rousers: Caley Gredig and her father  had to beg the Department of Wildlife to cite them for trapping illegally.
David Rehor
Rabble-rousers: Caley Gredig and her father had to beg the Department of Wildlife to cite them for trapping illegally.

Suddenly offering particular protection to one animal can have unforeseen consequences, as well. Recently, for instance, Colorado's mule deer population has plunged. That could be the result of rapid development -- until recently the deer relied heavily on places like the Vail Valley for winter habitat, and much of that land has been transformed into high-priced landscaping and ski slopes. Then again, says Croonquist, the decline could have something to do with an increase in the coyote population, which might be a consequence of the ban on trapping.

For years, state wildlife agencies have used hunting and trapping as a means to balance all of their animal populations, and taking these tools away can create imbalances. Consumers accustomed to the previous equilibrium can find the new order alarming, and that can produce odd bedfellows. Recently, for instance, the California Audubon Society, an environmental group of long standing, asked officials to modify that state's popularly elected trapping ban. The reason? The fox population, historically controlled by trapping, was preying on endangered bird species.

The animal initiatives have created an even greater sense of unease among the more common consumers of wildlife -- hunters, in particular. In some states, there has even been a backlash. Last year in Minnesota, residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of a symbolic initiative that reaffirmed their right to hunt and fish in the state. Utah residents recently voted to raise the number of signatures required to place an initiative on the ballot, a measure pushed largely by sportsmen's groups fearful of losing their footing to an increasingly urbanized population.

When rubbed together, sportsmen's gathering fears and wildlife managers' anxieties combined to produce a spark at the National Trappers Association headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana. "About two years ago, this representative from the National Trapping Association called," Davidson recalls. "He said that their legal advisor had come up with an idea to attack Amendment 14 through the courts."

Somebody has to represent unpopular causes, and Stephen Boynton received his trial by fire. In 1971, an Alaskan company was having difficulty complying with a government law that restricted its product -- seal fur pelts. Boynton, who works out of Washington, D.C., agreed to take up the firm's cause, and he has been in the employ of hunting and trapping concerns ever since. Today, one of his most active clients is the National Trapping Association. He fights its battles on two fronts.

The broadest is through the Ballot Initiatives Coalition, an organization Boynton founded in 1998 to combat any anti-hunting, -fishing or -trapping issue that might appear for a popular vote; and, alternately, to promote those initiatives that promise to protect sporting interests. So far the coalition has raised about three-quarters of a million dollars from organizations like the National Rifle Association, the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Archery Manufacturers and Merchants Organization and has involved itself in a half-dozen state initiatives. "These groups realize this is a very significant issue and that if we can stop it at an early level, we won't have to fight it later," he explains.

In the meantime, Boynton also has thrown himself into the more specific clash over trapping. Rhode Island, Florida and Massachusetts already have bans in place. In the past two years, Colorado, Arizona and California have passed trapping bans, and the movement seems to be picking up steam. Boynton says trapping opponents in Oregon, Mississippi and Washington are hoping to place the issue before voters later this year. So when he sat down and began to search for a way to stem the tide, there was a sense of urgency. What he stumbled on during his research was something called the U.S. government's Public Trust Doctrine.

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