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Effort to prevent beaver trapping backfires

JACKSON — Lisa Robertson says she was just curious what would happen two years ago when she put in applications to become the sole person permitted to run beaver trap lines in a few creek drainages near Jackson.

Being the founder of an organization called Wyoming Untrapped, she was an unlikely candidate to wade into beaver ponds and set conibear traps meant for the large aquatic rodents, a species whose valuable furs fueled exploration of much of North America. Her purpose, instead, was to prevent beavers from being trapped and killed.

“The first year it was just me, and I just did it to see how it worked,” Robertson said. “And I won two areas.”

The next year she convinced a couple friends to join her in monkeywrenching the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s system for regulating areas where a finite number of beavers can be trapped. Robertson again won the lottery last summer, as did Deidre Bainbridge and Bob Caesar. Just like that, folks who had no interest in trapping held exclusive-right permits to trap beavers in every stream drainage in the Jackson Hole area where trapping is limited: Ditch, Willow, Game, Little Horse and Fall creeks.

“We weren’t trying to make a big deal out of it,” Robertson said. “It’s just our right, so why not? Anybody can choose not to hunt on any kind of hunting permit.”

But recently, Robertson learned she was about to lose a shot at again acquiring one of the limited-quota trapping permits. Game and Fish in April issued its proposal for the 2019-20 trapping season, and the draft regulations scrubbed all the limited licenses for the Jackson Hole streams, opening them to anyone who possessed an over-the-counter trapping license.

Game and Fish Regional Wildlife Coordinator Doug McWhirter said it’s fair to characterize the activists’ successful tag-grab technique as the main motivation for the proposed rule change.

“We feel like that opportunity is there to be provided [to beaver trappers],” McWhirter said. “In some cases, we’ve been issuing lethal take permits because there’s not a licensed trapper that was acting on those permits.”

Jackson Hole resident and longtime fur trapper Mike Beres, who presides over the board of the Wyoming State Trappers Association, said he appreciates the state’s planned rule change.

“You’re impeding somebody’s right to trap by applying for those licenses with no intention of using them,” Beres said. “Somebody found a loophole, and it’s not the guy who’s got five jobs who’s trying to survive. It’s the rich Wilson soccer mom who’s got a lot of time.”

The concept of subverting hunting and trapping seasons by overwhelming limited-draw lotteries earned headlines around the world in 2018, when a group called Shoot ’Em With a Camera convinced people to apply for Wyoming’s planned grizzly bear hunt. A federal judge stopped the season, which would have targeted up to 22 bears, but not before people like wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen succeeded in the low-odds lottery and won a slot that could have allowed him to slow the hunt.

The more-tightly regulated harvest of beaver trapping in Ditch, Willow, Game, Little Horse and Fall creeks dates to 1992. Limiting the drainages to a single trapper predates McWhirter’s post at Game and Fish, but his hunch was that the 27-year-old rule change stemmed from high fur prices, significant trapping pressure and a goal to keep harvests in check. Game and Fish’s goal today is to keep beavers on the landscape and populations healthy, and he said the proposed regulation change shouldn’t be interpreted as a move to kill more beavers — even though the take would technically be uncapped.

“We recognize the keystone nature of beavers,” McWhirter said, “and their extremely valuable role on the landscape. We don’t want to see that impacted.”

At least one of the drainages affected, in fact, he said, is being considered for a complete closure down the road: the Wyoming Range’s Willow Creek, which would join already closed-off Cache, Cliff and Granite creeks.

Game and Fish’s Jackson office is also implementing a new-to-here beaver monitoring program, and there are plans to inventory the population using aerial techniques, McWhirter said.

In the meantime, Robertson isn’t impressed with what she described as beaver trapping regulations that have no scientific foundation. The rule change in response to her successful draw, she said, is “very disappointing.”

“We can do better than this,” Robertson said. “We should be thinking more progressively than any other county out there. We know better, and we have the knowledge, so when are we going to start using science to regulate our furbearers?”

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