Fur Fight

On a warm winter morning, Spencer Bridges looks out across a wide stretch of the Arkansas River churning through the grasslands outside Rocky Ford, and memories float up.

"I grew up out here on this land," he says. "Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn didn't have nothing on us. I'd be out five to ten days at a time, just sleeping out and skipping school. My dad lived in Missouri and, heck, my mom couldn't keep track of me." He canoed the river more times than he can remember and, when he was twelve, began trapping along it.

During an eleven-month tour of duty in Vietnam, Bridges often thought of the river. Some soldiers requested care packages with food from home; he asked his family to send his traps, and he cleaned and handled them and, just for practice, set them for rats.

He was back trapping the Arkansas the day he returned from the war. "It was just so damned dirty and awful over there," he says. "But this, this river, was what coming home was all about. It wasn't wild women and song. It was this."

Colorado's trappers find themselves in an unusual position these days: They're being stalked.

Six months ago the Colorado Division of Wildlife began enforcing new regulations that placed severe restrictions on what types of traps can be used, when they can be used, and on what species. And after the election this November, much of the trapping still done in Colorado could become illegal.

In a roundabout way, the campaign against trapping got started with another election, when Coloradans voted in 1992 to ban most bear hunting. The measure's margin of victory--70 percent to 30 percent--showed a huge gulf between how the Division of Wildlife had been handling wild animals and how the voting public wanted them treated.

As a result, although DOW had always re-evaluated its trapping (and hunting and fishing) regulations every five years, in 1994 the procedure was different. This time, the agency decided, the public's values were as important as biological considerations.

DOW recruited interested citizens, organized public forums and hired professional mediators. In May 1995, after seven months of grueling and emotional meetings, the citizens' group concluded its work.

The resounding consensus was that nobody much agreed on anything. In fact, the best the group could do was to present DOW with four alternatives. The first called for a total ban on trapping; the fourth recommended lifting everything, even the existing regulations that prevented trappers from taking endangered species. The other two fell somewhere in the middle.

At about that same time, DOW received the results of a survey it had commissioned several months earlier, polling state residents for their views on hunting, fishing and trapping. Although many of the survey's findings were vague, one was not: Trappers were unpopular. About two thirds of the people surveyed--mostly those living along the Front Range--said that, with the exception of using trapping to protect human health and safety, they didn't care for the practice at all.

Taking into consideration the survey results, as well as the disparate suggestions of DOW's citizens' group, the Wildlife Commission--whose members are appointed by the governor to oversee DOW and make wildlife policy--decided to restrict trapping. Starting last September, the commission required that trappers use only padded jaw traps and restraining snares (snares that hold but do not choke and kill animals); that traps be checked every 24 hours instead of every 48; and that trappers harvest only eight species of fur bearers, rather than the eighteen previously allowed.

Farmers and ranchers were the first to complain about the new regulations, which they claimed would make it impossible to protect crops and livestock from predators. They were so concerned about the rule change, in fact, that last month state Senator Don Ament, a Republican from Iliff, introduced a bill that would give the Colorado Department of Agriculture--not DOW--authority over which predators could be destroyed, and when and how.

Animal-rights activists responded that the new regulations hadn't gone far enough. In January a Denver couple, Don and Elisa Angell (a retired biologist and librarian, respectively), began circulating a petition that they hope will result in another referendum on this November's ballot. It would ban trapping on all public lands in the state. (There are exceptions for agricultural animal-damage control, although only as a last resort.)

And recently another bill was introduced at the legislature, this one proposing that money from trapping-license fees be used to pay for damage done to livestock by predators. This would mean that the same people who trap coyotes would cover the cost of the damage coyotes do to calves and sheep.

All this peculiar, and sometimes contradictory, activity alarms some wildlife biologists, who note that only lions, bears and other large, visible--and cuddly--creatures grab the public's attention. The problem, they say, is that fiddling with a species sends ripples through the entire ecology. Rodents and rabbits, for instance, have been considered agricultural pests for years and, since no one has much of an interest in protecting them, have been killed freely. But these animals are a prime source of food for coyotes, and their disappearance has caused coyotes to look elsewhere for sustenance--livestock barns and pens, for instance.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer