My morning walks along the Bitterroot River are generally a time for reflection and fun with my canine companions, Kola and Jewel. My mind mulls over any number of issues that might be vexing me at the moment while I almost mechanically throw the ball for Jewel, my half-pit half-lab cross who is obsessed with fetching. Meanwhile, my little Jack Russell terrier, Kola, scampers off in all directions looking for little critters to harass.

Thus was my routine on one recent cold January morning, when suddenly everything changed. Kola’s shrill cries of agony pierced the silence and jerked me from my reverie. Never had I heard him make such a horrifying sound.

As I ran to him, it was apparent that his leg had been caught in a trap. He was literally howling with pain. I immediately dropped to the ground to free him. Instinctively, he grabbed my hands with his teeth and began biting. Luckily, I still had on my leather gloves from feeding my horses and I know how to open a trap. Within seconds he was freed and zipped off on three legs the short 500 feet to the door of our home. I hurriedly broke the trap free from its cable tether, and ran after him.

Anger does not begin to describe my feelings as I grabbed Kola and rushed him to my vet. Dr. Richardson saw us immediately, examined and x-rayed Kola’s leg. Luck was again with us – no broken bones, just tissue damage.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks was my next stop, as Kola slept off his drug-induced stupor in the car. I noted the trap number, handed it to officials, and requested an investigation. Within two hours, a very professional MFWP official, Derek, showed up and walked with me to the trap site, took photos and recorded my story. He had already identified and called the trapper, who immediately removed all remaining traps from the area.

I was very hot under the collar. It was completely unacceptable to me that someone should place leghold traps within 500 feet of my doorstep. It was illegal. The trapper, a young man living in the neighborhood, had been given permission to cross a neighbor’s property to set his fox traps on state land. He failed to follow regulations. Derek deftly diffused the situation. The trapper called, came over and apologized. I believed he was sincere. He agreed to work off the cost of the vet bill. MFWP followed up with a citation. I am satisfied with the official response.

It has taken me time to cool off enough to write my story. Trapping has become an extremely controversial political issue. Neither side can hear the other. It has become an all-or-nothing proposition. I hope not to exacerbate the conflict, but participate in its resolution.

Yes, trapping indiscriminately captures, tortures and kills animals, including people’s pets, for personal and commercial gain. Yes, Montana has a long, important tradition of trapping and a few people do depend on the income it produces. Rarely is it a wildlife management tool.

Can’t we move forward by agreeing on a few simple truths? Traps should never put people’s pets in harm’s way, which probably means placing them no closer than a mile from any dwelling or trail (not just trailheads). Trapping is unacceptable to the majority of Montanans (even to the majority of Alaskans where I personally conducted a study on its acceptability). Can’t we phase out trapping altogether by putting a moratorium on new trapping licenses, but also allow those few individuals who have heavily invested their lives in the activity to continue in a responsible way?

Montana has many traditions, including that of tolerance and common sense. Let’s not push each other into corners. Let’s get practical. Acknowledge that trapping is indiscriminate, cruel and socially unacceptable. Acknowledge too that trapping once was not only acceptable but celebrated, and that it is unfair to pull the rug out from under trappers who have build livelihoods carrying on that tradition. Let’s begin to fix this situation for good.

SuzAnne Miller is a fourth-generation Montanan who owns Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo and is retired from serving as the chief biometrician for the Wildlife Conservation Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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