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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Trappers, Veterinarians Set Best Practices for Traps & Trapping

Whether trappers make a set to catch furbearers for pelts, or to help biologists tag, release and follow wildlife for research, their traps increasingly meet humane criteria set by the International Organization for Standardization.

If you doubt that, read a peer-reviewed research paper titled “Best Management Practices for Trapping Furbearers in the United States.” This 56-page report is available as a free download from The Wildlife Society in the January 2021 issue of Wildlife Monographs (

Scientific research and ISO standards, of course, didn’t stop California, New Jersey or Colorado from banning foothold and body-gripping traps. Nor did it prevent Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Washington, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Rhode Island from forbidding or greatly restricting their use.

But for people and lawmakers who can get past emotional assumptions about trapping, this ongoing study reveals the painstaking evaluations that traps receive from wildlife biologists and veterinarians at state agencies and universities.

The effort to create BMPs for trapping is coordinated by Bryant White, the paper’s lead author, who works for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The research project evaluated over 650 trap models the past 24 years as AFWA developed and continually updated “best practices” for trapping 23 furbearer species in the United States and Canada. Those evaluations cover foothold traps, cage traps, body-grip traps, cable-restraints (snares), and foot-encapsulating traps.

Since its 1997 start, this $40 million study has sent afield over 2,000 teams of experienced trappers and biologists to test traps and evaluate trapping techniques for safety and efficiency. It has evaluated over 230 combinations of 84 trap models and 19 furbearer species, and each year evaluates new traps to stay current.

Those evaluations include necropsies by veterinarians on 8,566 furbearers caught by trappers to determine the amount and severity of trap-related injuries. The veterinarians use a point system to judge each trap, ranging from zero points for no trauma or visible injuries, to 100 points if the animal died or suffered torn ligament or bone fractures.

The research shows most traps are efficient and selective. Only five models (3%) failed to secure target animals reliably, and few caught species the trapper wasn’t targeting. Foot-snares earned the lowest selectivity rate (88%) for catching species the trapper didn’t target.

Further, few animals caught in restraining traps died from trap-related injuries (0.5%). And in over 230,000 “trap-nights” across a 21-year test period, traps involved in the study didn’t catch one threatened or endangered species.

Of the 9,589 captures the study documented, 11% were not furbearers. Most of those were birds, rabbits and squirrels, and 83% were found alive. About 2% (199) of all captures were feral or free-running dogs, none of which died or needed veterinary care; and 3% (about 292) were feral or free-roaming cats, two of which died, but none of those required veterinary care.

White said agencies and AFWA regularly survey trappers to learn which trap models they’re using. That helps researchers choose which traps to test each year. In addition, a nationwide survey in 2015 found 75% of furbearers taken by trappers were caught by BMP-compliant traps, and 10% were taken in traps not yet tested.

Whether trapped animals are dispatched for fur or food, or tagged and monitored for research after being released, it’s important to minimize trap-related injuries. Agencies routinely use foothold traps to capture wolves and other species to protect or move them, such as for the reintroduction study on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Trappers Association are vital participants in the BMP study, said White, who oversees AFWA’s programs on trapping policies and human-wildlife conflicts. John Olson, the Wisconsin DNR’s former furbearer specialist, coordinated a necropsy workshop in Ashland on July 13-15. Helping were 12 to 15 retired biologists and volunteer trappers, including Sandra Dee Naas, who Gov. Evers appointed to the Natural Resources Board on May 1.

AFWA also brought in three state wildlife veterinarians to evaluate and necropsy over 100 furbearers trapped, frozen and shipped from several states. This year’s batch included coyotes and raccoons, as well as a coatimundi from Arizona.

The veterinarians—Lindsey Long, Wisconsin DNR; Kelly Straka, Michigan DNR; and Dan Groves, University of Tennessee Extension and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency—inspected each animal for injuries, noted their finds, and then had a trapper skin it.

The veterinarians then inspected the skinned carcasses for injuries or trauma while a volunteer fleshed (cleaned) and mounted the pelt for tanning. Tanned pelts are eventually sold or donated for nature programs, university classes, and trapper-education courses. Shawn Rossler, the Wisconsin DNR’s furbearer specialist, said Wisconsin has over 200 trapper-education instructors who, combined, teach 1,000 to 2,000 beginning trappers annually.

Straka has conducted countless necropsies for the study the past 13 years. “It’s a fascinating project on two fronts in wildlife health,” she said. “We’ll always need trapping as a tool to manage wildlife damage and populations. I support that as a veterinarian. But I also want to do what’s best for each individual animal’s health. If we see substantial damage, trauma and injuries we don’t see from other traps, we step in and say that trap is unacceptable. We document the evidence that details why a device can’t be endorsed.”

Groves said the volunteer trappers and recorders speed the process so the veterinarians can focus on necropsies, and consult each other when finding unexplained marks or injuries.

“These trappers are professional skinners,” Groves said. “They take 10 minutes to skin an animal that takes me an hour. And if they see something unusual, they point it out. It’s a great system.”

Long said the necropsies also help trappers and agencies identify traps and trapping techniques that reduce “incidental” captures. That is, animals that trappers and researchers aren’t trying to catch, whether it’s pets, livestock or other wildlife.

“Those are important factors of everything we do as wildlife professionals,” Long said. “They help make sure the trapping methods we use and recommend are effective. An overarching part of trapping and hunting involves how we interact with each animal to make sure we treat them humanely.”

Even though trapping has long been the No. 1 foe and fundraising target of animal-rights groups, the public generally supports trapping when learning it’s regulated and effective, White said.

“Trapping gets about 75% approval in states where agencies use research data and outreach materials to explain their programs,” White said. “The more work we put into this, the more effective trappers become, and the more we validate trapping’s role in wildlife management.”

Kelly Straka, state veterinarian for the Michigan DNR, inspects a raccoon July 15 at a three-day trap-evaluation workshop in Ashland, Wisconsin. — Patrick Durkin photos

John Olson, left, Bryant White and Kelly Straka discuss a raccoon necropsy at a trap-evaluation workshop July 15 in Ashland, Wisconsin. Olson is a retired DNR furbearer ecologist, and Straka is Michigan’s statewide wildlife veterinarian. White works for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which coordinated the workshop.

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