Karen Zoller and her beloved dog Mac went for a jog one day in early January. It was a trail they had run many times before, north of Ocean Lake and just east of Pavillion.
Everything was normal at first. Mac wandered slightly off the trail. Then, as Zoller watched him, his body flipped to the ground.
Mac had walked into a neck snare meant to trap bobcats and coyotes, among other wildlife. Not dogs. Zoller struggled with the wire, but it wouldn’t budge.
“He died right in my arms,” she said.
Angry and bereaved, she lamented about the incident in a Lander trails Facebook group. Her post, only eight sentences long and accompanied by a photo of Mac, has since been shared more than 500 times. And it has snowballed into grassroots calls for better transparency and stricter regulations around trapping in Fremont County.
Zoller and a cadre of concerned residents have now formed WY TRAP FREE-mont County, an advocacy group with the goal of improving education around trapping and enforcing stricter regulations on how the practice is conducted on public land.
Their main question: Does trapping on public lands create a threat to public safety?
WY TRAP FREE-mont County believes so, at least to an extent. But trappers maintain the issue is more complicated than it may at first seem. Cases like Zoller’s are tragic but rare, they say, and in a broader sense trapping is a necessary practice for the maintenance of public health and resource management. Limiting the practice, they say, could cause more harm than good.
“Trapping is going to continue in this state ... animals are prolific,” Tom Krause, Fremont County director of the Wyoming State Trappers Association said. “We need to manage them in perpetuity so they can thrive.”
Trapping, he said, is the most humane way to do that.
While advocates for trapping reform say the practice is dangerously under-regulated, the sport is hardly free of rules.
Trapping is allowed on pretty much all public land in Wyoming, which means 55 percent of the state. It’s prohibited in Yellowstone National Park, and a few areas are closed for trapping certain animals. But outside of cities and towns, trapping is allowed almost anywhere the rest of the public is.
Wyoming has set specific trapping seasons for mink, bobcat, muskrat, weasel, badger, beaver and marten, though the seasons range in length from a few months to the whole year. And not all trapping requires seasonal permission. Trappers can catch predators any time of year with zero oversight.
Trapping in the pioneer sense, however, revolves around fur-bearing animals, so it takes place in the winter when wildlife have the bushiest coats. Trappers aren’t limited in how many animals they’re allowed to harvest in a given season, except for beavers, for which there are location-based maximums. Trappers looking for fur-bearing animals also must be licensed, which runs $45 for adult residents.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission reviews rules for trappers every three years, and those on the books in Wyoming aren’t much different from those across the U.S.
According to state trapping regulation data collected by the animal rights group Born Free USA, most states don’t limit the number of traps a trapper can use, and about half don’t require trapper education. All states require some form of trapping license, and most don’t have mandatory reporting on what’s caught.
But for the most part, trappers are mostly left to their own devices. They aren’t required to disclose where traps and snares are located, nor are they required to report how many “non-target” animals end up in the trap.
It’s this lack of oversight that reform advocates say must change.
Sitting around a table in a Lander bakery, the members of WY TRAP FREE-mont County shared news articles and regulatory brochures. They spoke of personal encounters with traps, meant for bobcats and coyotes, but found by their pets. In some cases their pets survived. But not in all.
“I think it’s hard to bring the awareness to people who have this happen” Karin Kruse, a Fremont County resident and activist for reform said. “When my dogs were trapped, that was years ago, I didn’t know where to turn. There was nobody, trapping was the given thing.”
With the plan the group is hoping to present to the Game and Fish Commission, they hope that trend changes.
They’re guided by the acronym T.R.A.P:
T: trapping — your freedom ends where mine begins;
R: responsible recreation;
A: advocacy, education and training;
P: public lands, multi-use, we all have rights.
To be clear, they don’t want to outlaw trapping. Not that they would be able to; it’s protected by the Wyoming Constitution, in an amendment added in 2012.
But the way they see it, trappers represent a fraction of a fraction of the population. Only 2,500 people were licensed to trap last year. Yet, the group says, trappers have domain over everyone’s public lands.
Trappers in Wyoming can place traps on pretty much any public land, with only a few exceptions. They also aren’t required to tell anyone where the traps are, not even the game warden. It’s also not a requirement for trappers to report how many “non-target” animals they catch.
“If you look at it, Wyoming legally can kill your dog,” Zoller said.
This is why the Fremont County group wants to see trap-free zones implemented in high-recreation areas in the state.
“The responsibility shouldn’t just fall on trappers or the dog owners,” Christi Chapman, a dog trainer and member of the Fremont County group explained. “But if we don’t know where the traps are, how can we keep the dog safe?”
Trappers say if they indicate where traps are located, the traps are stolen. But Chapman thinks the trap-free zones are a fair compromise.
She said dogs need to be able to explore off-leash, and dog owners shouldn’t have to leash their pets when public land means public for everyone, especially as the land becomes increasingly multi-use and recreational.
The group is also hoping to change how often trappers are required to check their traps. Existing regulations require Wyoming trappers to check leg-hold traps every 72 hours, and snares and body traps once during the week. So if a trapper checked on Monday of the first week, they wouldn’t need to return to check again until Friday of the second week, for example.
The advocacy group says this time frame essentially ensures animals caught accidentally in the traps starve to death if the trap doesn’t kill them.
The group plans to bring these recommendations to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission with the aim of seeing policy change as soon as next season. Technically, Game and Fish regulations are only reviewed every three years, but activists have an audience before the commission this month.
Tom Krause was 14 years old when he fell in love. It took him a year to catch that first mink. The learning curve was steep, and the effort required to understand an animal’s habits well enough to trap it on its own turf enthralled him.
Krause is now nearing 80, but that boyhood desire to outsmart nature never dissipated. His basement walls are lined with pelts. Various fur garments hang in his wife’s closet. Two decades worth of American Trapper magazine, for which Krause was the longtime editor, collect in a plastic tub.
Suffice it to say Krause has been doing this a while. So it’s with some authority he presides over the issue.
Krause said the association wants to hear WY TRAP FREE-mont County’s suggestions, and agreed trapping has its grisly side. Dogs do get caught in snares.
Snares are essentially long wires with loops on either end, and the loop is suspended off the ground. The tool is somewhat selective, Krause said, in that the loop is sized according to the animal the trapper is hoping to get. Snares are also required to have a breakaway device so larger game can escape if accidentally captured.
But that’s about where the selectiveness stops.
“We do not have methods to discriminate between a 30-pound dog and a 30-pound coyote,” Krause said.
That indiscriminate nature of the traps can have unintended consequences. But Krause said dogs being killed by snares isn’t common, adding there’s no way to know how many times a dog might have been caught and then released successfully, either.
Still, Krause understands the concern.
His friend and fellow trapper, Jim Pearce, who oversees the Laramie region of the Wyoming State Trappers Association, understands, too. And they’re amenable to change.
Pearce said the trappers association is the reason a certain “killing trap,” the Conibear 330, is no longer permitted on dry land. It can only be used when submerged in water.
“The trappers association initiated that,” Pearce said.
The debate over trapping on public lands isn’t new. Stories of dogs being killed by traps and snares have been making headlines for decades. In the 1990s, dogs dying in traps precipitated reform in Massachusetts, Colorado and California.
In 2014, a Casper family lost three St. Bernards to snares in a four-day window on public land near where they lived. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department concluded all of the traps were set legally.
Lisa Robertson, who founded the nonprofit Wyoming Untrapped, said dogs being killed in snares is more common than people realize. Robertson founded the nonprofit in 2014, a few years after a string of dogs were killed by traps in Teton County.
Her organization advocates for trapping reform and champions many of the same regulatory shifts the Fremont County group does. Among those reforms is requiring trappers to record all of the animals they trap.
Because Wyoming doesn’t require trappers to report dogs caught in traps, Robertson started doing it. The website, wyominguntrapped.org, serves as a database of tragic accidents and close calls. More than 60 incidents of dogs being caught in traps are recorded on the site, dating back to 2000. But Robertson said that just scratches the surface. Most people don’t know her organization exists, she said, so they don’t know where to go if a dog has been captured.
This is why she’s skeptical that the issue is really just a fluke.
One solution presented by both Wyoming Untrapped and WY TRAP FREE-mont County is to limit how close traps can be to public trails. Krause agreed it was a reasonable request, saying it’s not considered best practices for traps to be placed in high conflict areas like public trails in the first place.
But the groups can’t seem to bridge the details. What constitutes a trail? What’s a reasonable distance? An earlier suggestion from Wyoming Untrapped was to set the traps back 1,500 feet.
“What if I’m in a canyon and the canyon’s 500-feet wide?” Pearce asked.
Another disagreement touches on how often trappers need to check traps. Activists would like to see the law changed to once every day.
Krause and Pearce contend it’s not realistic to check traps every day when Wyoming is so vast. Plus, if they’re checking the traps every day, animals will be scared away by the human smell.
And it’s these details that have seemed to stall any of the regulatory shifts that advocacy groups are hoping to see. Robertson said she met with the trapper’s association five years ago to talk about regulatory changes, and the trappers were agreeable then, too.
But nothing changed.
So while activists are hoping to move Wyoming into a new direction, they’re learning to take precautions in the meantime.
Wyoming Untrapped is hosting workshops to teach pet owners how to safely remove animals from snares, with a session in Casper scheduled for 5:30 p.m. March 23 at the Natrona County Agricultural Resource & Learning Center’s Casper Room.
WY TRAP FREE-mont County is also planning outreach events and educational opportunities in the future. Their website, wytrapfreemontcounty.org, should be live sometime this month. The group’s logo is an illustration of Mac.
“We’re using this because we don’t want it to happen to anyone else,” Zoller said.
Follow local government reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites