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Trapping on National Wildlife Refuges

What is the National Wildlife Refuge System?

Theodore Roosevelt established the first National Wildlife Refuge on Pelican Island, Florida, in 1903 to protect imperiled bird species. Since then, 519 refuges totaling 93 million acres have been added to the refuge system.

Today the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), the most comprehensive and diverse collection of fish and wildlife habitats in the world, harbors more than 240 endangered species (24% of all listed species), over 700 kinds of birds, 220 mammal species, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and 200 kinds of fish.

The mission of the NWRS is:

To administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.

Why is "consumptive wildlife use" (hunting/ trapping/ fishing) allowed on the NWRS?

Recreational hunting and trapping, and other activities harmful to wildlife, were prohibited on most refuges until the 1950s when amendments to the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934 (the Duck Stamp Act) authorized consumptive use activities on many refuges. The Duck Stamp program allowed hunters and trappers to argue they were the chief financial supporters of conservation and thus had the "right" to kill wildlife on public lands. In the 1950s and 1960s, as hunters and trappers gained greater political power, consumptive wildlife uses were expanded on refuges through amendments to existing and new legislation.

What activities detrimental to wildlife occur on the NWRS?

As of September 1999, trapping of wildlife occurred on 280 (54%) refuge units, and hunting on 296 (57%) refuges. Worse, wildlife-killing "sports" will increase because the 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act designated hunting and fishing as "priority uses" and stipulated they "receive enhanced consideration" by refuge managers.

Commercial and recreational trapping with leghold traps and strangulation neck snares was almost banned in the summer of 1999 when the House of Representatives voted 259-166 in favor of an amendment prohibiting such devices on the refuge system. But pro-trapping and fur-interest lobby groups pressured the Senate to kill the amendment by a 64-32 vote.

What reasons are given for trapping on refuges?

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) claims trapping is necessary to protect migratory birds and threatened and endangered species. Ironically, many of these same migratory birds ostensibly "protected" by predator-killing trappers are then shot by hunters. Furthermore, trapping on refuges occurs more often for "commercial" (fur) and "recreational" (sport) purposes by private individuals than for any other single reason. Because traps do not discriminate, they also jeopardize the threatened and endangered species the FWS claims trappers protect. According to the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, bald eagles are frequent victims of baited leghold traps and, more often than not, these eagles die as a result of trap-related injuries.

What traps are used on the NWRS and what animals are trapped?

Of the 280 refuges allowing trapping in 1997, 171 utilized Conibear kill-type devices, 140 utilized steel-jaw leghold traps, 74 utilized kill snares, and 66 utilized "other body-hold devices." The primary "target" animals trapped on refuges include raccoons, beavers, foxes, mink, and skunks. Many of these animals are killed for their fur. Other target animals include wolves, bobcats, lynx, and coyotes.

Because body-gripping traps are non-selective, other animals are also accidentally trapped. According to the FWS, the primary non-target species trapped on refuges include river otters, rabbits, domestic dogs and cats, and birds. Many of these animals die in the traps (if caught in a kill-type trap or strangulation neck snare) or as a result of trap-related injuries.

Does the public support trapping on refuges?

According to a FWS survey, of 30 million people who visited refuges, 21 million visited for wildlife observation and "just to experience nature," while only 1.4 million visited to hunt or trap animals.

Public opinion surveys show the vast majority of Americans believe commercial and recreational trapping and the use of body-gripping traps should be prohibited on all refuges. A 1999 national Decision Research public opinion poll showed that 79% of Americans believe trapping on National Wildlife Refuges should be prohibited, while 88% believe wildlife and habitat preservation should be the highest priority of the refuge system. Humane concerns aside, the use of leghold traps, neck snares, and other body-gripping devices poses a serious hazard to non-target wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Trappers, who compromise less than one tenth of 1% of the population, already have access to millions of acres of public and private lands outside the refuge system for their activities. As lands specifically set aside to provide animals a safe home, refuges should be inviolate sanctuaries, not playgrounds for trappers and other consumptive wildlife users.

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