October 15, 2015 8:00 am •
A proposed ballot initiative to restrict and criminalize trapping on Montana’s public lands has passed its first hurdle.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office approved the gathering of signatures for the November 2016 general election on Oct. 6. Proponents have set out to gather 24,175 qualified signatures from at least 34 house districts by June 17.
The numbers represent 5 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election and one-third of Montana’s house districts.
It’s the third time in six years an anti-trapping initiative has reached the signature-gathering stage. Efforts in 2010 and last year failed to garner the required number of signatures.
Initiative 177 would prohibit most commercial and recreational trapping and snaring for animals on public lands and establish misdemeanor criminal penalties for violations.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks could still use certain traps if nonlethal methods have been tried and found ineffective. Government employees and their agents could trap problem predators such as bears or mountain lions, or problem beavers or muskrats to mitigate damage to irrigation works on public lands.
Trapping by public officials could also be used to conduct “specified scientific and wildlife management activities,” according to the approved language of the initiative.
Proponents of I-177 say the law would address public safety concerns, control the “inhumane and indiscriminate” nature of traps, and relieve what they call the unsustainable pressure trapping puts on dwindling and endangered species.
Opponents argue it prohibits from using public lands the segment of the public who traps. They say the measure would drive up costs of state and federal wildlife management while reducing revenue, and it would handcuff those agencies from their charges of managing wildlife.
Chris Justice of Missoula, executive director of Footloose Montana and volunteer for Montana for Trap-Free Public Lands (MTFPL), said the initiative attempt in 2014 that got a late start and garnered just 10,000 signatures was sponsored by a separate group with a similar name: Trap-Free Montana Public Lands.
Justice said in crafting the current initiative, MTFPL focused on “very clearly defining in what cases the state still reserves the power to trap. Previous attempts have left that more ambiguous.”
House Bill 212, passed by the 2015 Legislature, went into effect Oct. 1. In part, it clarified that the word “harvest” in the Montana Constitution includes trapping. Opponents of the trap-free initiative maintain a constitutional amendment is needed to ban trapping. That would require twice as many signatures to get onto the ballot.
“We’re discouraged,” said Keith Kubista of Stevensville, president of Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and a vocal opponent of a trapping ban. “We’ve written many comments to the attorney general and others that suggest trapping is part of our constitutional right to harvest fish and game. That’s the foundation on which we’re going to approach this.”
Montana for Trap-Free Public Lands (MTFPL), with support from Footloose Montana, say trapping and snaring must go, or at least be eliminated from the public lands that constitute 35 percent of Montana.
“Under current law, trappers are able to set an unlimited number of traps, warning signs are not required, and trappers are advised but not required to check their traps in any specific period of time,” MTFPL said in a press release Wednesday.
“Montanans should not have to compromise peace of mind, welfare of children, and pet safety when using their own public land,” said Justice.
Trapping conflicts with hunting ethics, added Dr. Tim Provow, a Missoula anesthesiologist and president of the MTFPL and Footloose Montana boards.