Montana, as all of us who live here know, is a remarkable state, blessed with extraordinary natural resources. Glacier National Park is a jewel. Montana's water network feeds the continent’s major river basins. And the state hosts the greatest diversity of mammals.

But what tarnishes our public lands is the constant risk of walking into traps – both by hikers and their companion animals.

This is far more than a nuisance. It’s an horrific encounter that’s potentially lethal to our pets.

Hamilton-based veterinarian Dr. Alan Applebury puts it plainly: "When an animal’s leg gets caught in a steel-jaw leg hold trap, it immediately causes swelling, lacerations and bone fracture. With trapping occurring during winter months, any animal locked in the trap for even several hours will suffer loss of circulation and its trapped limb will freeze and turn gangrenous."

Applebury says that if your pet becomes frantic and twists about trying to escape, it will suffer joint dislocation and further limb damage.

Many traps have killed pets. And this is almost assured when they are attracted by bait and get caught by the head or neck.

For wildlife, the prospects are far more hideous. If weather prevents the trapper from inspecting the traps every day or two, the animal could freeze to death. And for those that refuse that fate, Applebury says some animals “will start gnawing at its leg. Once through the soft tissue, it will bite through its own bone until it snaps.”

Once freed, the bloody, amputated limb will soon get infected. The animal will unlikely be able to hunt, may be killed by a predator (if it’s lucky), or will otherwise die of sepsis within a week.

If you believe no animal — pet nor wildlife – should suffer like this, there is something you can do about it.

You can vote yes for the Montana Trap-Free Public Lands Initiative (Initiative 177).

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More than 34,000 Montanans already expressed their support for this idea, having signed the petition that got the initiative on the ballot. This move follows the leads by California, Colorado, Washington and Arizona, which have significantly restricted or banned trapping on public lands to make them safer. These states are finding clear economic and environmental benefits. And they’re acknowledging a growing consensus that trapping causes unnecessarily cruel and unusual suffering.

The BBC, a global news organization, reports through damming, beavers and other semi-aquatic-animals—creatures that are frequently trapped – help preserve critical water basins. Just one beaver, says the BBC, is estimated to be worth $120,000 in terms of water management. Loss of these animals is akin to collapse of bee colonies and its effect on agriculture.

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Traps are indiscriminate killing mechanisms. According to the state, trappers have reported killing an average of 50,000 animals annually for their fur over the past decade. The total kill number is likely much higher. Rare and endangered species have been made so in part due to trapping, and they’re heading toward extinction if the process isn’t abated.

Organizations that are fighting I-177 claim that it will put ranchers livestock at greater risk. But the initiative addresses that concern, allowing trapping to continue as it relates to protection of livestock and property, public health and safety, and for scientific and wildlife management purposes.

These groups also claim huge costs associated with trapping restrictions. When state wildlife officials were asked to assess the annual cost, the figure was only $61,000.

Outdoorsmen who fear the initiative is part of a plan to restrict hunting and fishing are off the mark. I-177’s proponents are simply seeking to minimize suffering on public lands.

The humane argument is not anthropomorphizing the issue. The National Academy of Sciences, comprised of the country’s leading researchers, acknowledge animals (especially, but not limited to, mammals) feel pain. Anyone who owns a pet knows this. 

Even the great game hunter and writer Ernest Hemingway felt when he could no longer kill cleanly and quickly, he would stop hunting.

A final point Dr. Applebury raises, which few may have considered, is how society demands executions of convicted murderers be done humanely: “It's troublesome that for innocent wildlife, when their slaughter is deemed necessary, society can't extend that same basic mercy."

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Eric Uhlfelder of Missoula is longtime financial journalist who has written on wildlife issues, including a feature on airplane-bird strikes and the promise of avian radar published by National Geographic and subsequently earned a National Press Club award.

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