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Trapping ban on pubic lands a sound approach

By James Rogers

As a fur trade historian, I believe that a brief look at trapping along the Missouri River in the past provides insight today on Initiative 177, which bans trapping on Montana’s public land. After studying the complex trading enterprise that was sustained largely by trapping beavers to satisfy the European demand for felt hats, I have concluded that I-177 promotes an ethically valid and scientifically sound approach to managing fur-bearing animals in Montana.

It’s helpful to remember that the fur trade depended on Indigenous peoples and had a profound effect on their way of life. “Every intelligent man saw the poverty that would follow the destruction of the beaver” observed the fur trade explorer David Thompson in 1797. Four years later, Thompson described how “almost the whole of the extensive countries were denuded of beaver, the natives became poor, and with difficulty procured the first necessaries of life, and in this state they remain, and probably forever.”

This is particularly tragic since the Plains Indians weren’t very interested in trapping beavers in the first place. A Canadian fur trader in 1805 complained that: “Beavers are plentiful, but the Indians will not take the trouble of attending to them. They often remarked to me that they would think it a pleasure to supply us with beavers if they could be secured the same as buffaloes by a chase on horseback, but they considered the operation of searching for them in the bowels of the earth, to satisfy the avarice of the whites, not only troublesome, but very degrading.” Lewis and Clark, Manuel Lisa, and other traders encountered similar attitudes among the Indians on the upper Missouri River.

Many Montanans today are surprised to learn that thousands of beaver are trapped every year in our wetlands and waterways using equipment and methods largely unchanged in more than two hundred years. Unfortunately for the beaver, the result remains the same- a cruel death by jaws of steel. David Thompson once recovered a trap with a severed leg in it. The beaver had gnawed off its own paw to escape, but two days later, the same beaver was caught again. Another time, a beaver managed to swim away with an improperly fastened trap still attached to its leg, only to drown some days later in another trap. 

Aggressive trapping across the continent didn’t cause the extinction of the beaver, but it came close. When artist John James Audubon traveled 2,200 miles up the Missouri River from St. Louis to Fort Union in 1843, he was disappointed that he didn’t see a single beaver. Nor could Audubon obtain a specimen to paint, even though he hired an experienced trapper. By 1850, the fur trade was largely over in Montana.

David Thompson also heard the Indians’ misgivings about trapping: “We are now killing beaver without any labour, we are now rich, but shall soon be poor, for when the beaver are destroyed we have nothing to depend on to purchase what we want for our families. Strangers now overrun our country with their iron traps, and we and they will soon be poor.” Thompson knew the Indians were right, but he didn’t know how to help. Fortunately, today, we do.

The restoration of beavers in the 20th century is one of North America’s most notable success stories. We now recognize the beaver as a keystone species- an animal that plays a vital role in how an ecosystem works. Beaver dams create wetlands and meadows that improve water quality and increase biodiversity. And their dam building stores water for summer irrigation and recreation including fishing. As the climate gets warmer, letting beavers be beavers is a simple solution to water conservation.

The intensely competitive fur trade played a formative role in creating the United States and Canada. And it’s plain to see that trapping adversely affected native peoples as well as natural ecosystems by decimating beaver populations. In modern society, however, it makes no sense to allow the commercial exploitation of beaver and other fur-bearing species to suit the whims and fancies of fashion. Trapping is part of Montana’s heritage to be sure, but it’s time that we embrace the values, ethics, and science of the 21st century. Banning trapping on Montana’s public land is a way to make things right by correcting a historic injustice.

Vote yes on Initiative 177.

James Rogers is a historical geographer that studies fur trade exploration in the Far Northwest and is adjunct faculty at Salish Kootenai College.

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