New Mexico could become the latest state in the American West to place major restrictions on wildlife trapping as frontier ethics and suburban attitudes toward animal suffering collide over the use of steel foot traps and wire snares that many ranchers still swear by.
A Democrat-backed bill that bans traps, snares and animal poison on public land with few exceptions was poised for a crucial vote in in the state House of Representatives as soon as Thursday. Consideration by a less politically progressive Senate would come next.
Newly inaugurated Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not taken a public position yet.
The proposed trapping prohibition holds implications for wildlife and recreation across an estimated 30 percent of New Mexico — state and federal lands where independent, state-licensed trappers are frequently called on to help protect private livestock, or set out to harvest and sell the pelts of coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, badgers and beavers.
Steel-spring trapping traditions date back to Spanish colonial era and flourished with the emergence of trade along the Santa Fe Trail.
Early fur trappers include the legendary 19th century frontiersman Kit Carson, whose adventures were fodder in dime novels.
In northern New Mexico, where a fresh-water spring cuts a jagged line through snowpack, Tom Fisher checked on two spring-loaded foot traps in the hope of finding a coyote, fox or bobcat. He found none, though the daily visits are a legal requirement of his $20 annual trapping license.
“That’s the deal in New Mexico with a trapping license, instead of a five-day hunt you go from November to the end of April, if you also trap beaver,” said Fisher, one of about 1,900 licensed trappers in the state. “The only limit is your ambition.”
Environmental and animal welfare groups have rallied to support the trapping restrictions. They have been joined by household dog owners who tell harrowing tales of pets trapped in steel-vice traps while hiking on public land.
They have dubbed the bill “Roxy’s law” after a dog that was strangled by a poacher’s illegal snare on a lakeside trail, even as its owner struggled to release the wire noose. That led to a raid this month on a suspect’s home that was packed with contraband wildlife carcasses — further inflaming a heated policy debate.
“These killer snares are legal on millions of acres of public land,” Roxy’s owner, retired state ecologist Dave Clark, told a legislative committee. “I don’t think that’s the kind of tourist attraction New Mexico should be known for.”
Lining up against the ban are trappers and ranchers who depend on each other to tamp down livestock predators and harvest fur pelts that are an international commodity.
Fisher, who traps on private and public land, has forged trusted relationships with local ranchers such as Antonio Manzanares, whose flock of about 800 sheep roam private land in the winter and public land in warmer months.
Manzanares depends on a shepherd and herding dogs to keep in check predators that kill about 5 percent of his flock each year. But he says traps are a crucial tool as well, and worries opponents of trapping eventually will seek restrictions on private-land trapping.
Manzanares’ ranch sells organic lamb to restaurants and an upscale farmers’ market 80 miles (110 kilometers) away in Santa Fe.
“We’re just trying to make a living,” he said. “There’s other people, they’ve already made it apparently and they’re just looking for pleasure. So their dog gets in a trap? They can release it.”
Backers of the trapping ban bill say it would still allow more-humane cage traps on public land, a tool scoffed at by many ranchers. Coyotes still can be shot on sight.
At a House committee hearing this week, Republicans came to rhetorical rescue of ranchers, conceding only that new trapping restrictions might be appropriate where suburbs border wildlands. Democratic Rep. Matthew McQueen of Galisteo, lead sponsor of the bill, ceded no ground.
“Trapping is cruel and I think animals suffer and die a horrible death, whether they are domestic animals or not,” McQueen says. “We certainly respect our agricultural producers and their ability to protect their livestock. They still have tools at their disposal.”
Foothold traps would not disappear from public lands altogether.
The bill contains provisions for government wildlife managers to intervene with traps and snares for ecosystem management. Foothold traps continue to be used to catch and release Mexican gray wolves as wildlife specialists seek to re-establish the species in the American Southwest. Traps have been used in New Mexico since the late-1970s by wildlife managers to help re-establish pronghorn sheep by catching a chief predator — mountain lions.
Major restrictions on trapping have been enacted in nearby states over the last 20 years.
In Colorado, a constitutional amendment in 1997 prohibited trapping, snares and poison on public and private land — though 30-day exceptions are granted when landowners or tenants shows that livestock or crop damage can’t be prevented by sanctioned or non-lethal methods. Since 1994, Arizona has banned the use of foothold traps and snares on public land with few exceptions.
California banned by ballot initiative in 1998 the use of body-gripping traps for commercial purposes, and bobcat trapping was banned completely in late-2015. A bill introduced this year would do away with fur trapping licenses altogether.