Lawsuit results in smaller bobcat traps to avoid capturing lynx

To avoid an extended lawsuit, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission has approved more stringent bobcat-trapping rules to avoid accidental capture of endangered Canada lynx. But it wasn’t a unanimous or easy vote.

During Thursday’s discussion of furbearer quotas, the FWP commission debated whether to accept trap specifications outlined in a February court settlement between FWP and three environmental groups.

The settlement requires the jaws of bobcat traps to open 5 3/8 inches wide instead of 5 7/8 inches so that lynx are less likely to step through the opening. Trappers must also check trap lines every 48 hours to ensure a lynx isn’t suffering long.

WildEarth Guardians, Friends of the Wild Swan and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued the state in 2013 for not protecting Canada lynx from leg-hold traps set for furbearing species such as bobcat.

At least 15 lynx were caught in traps in Montana since 2000 when the cats were listed. Under the Endangered Species Act, each count as taking, which is illegal. Five of the lynx died in the trap and the others probably died after they were released because they become injured or dehydrated, said WildEarth Guardians attorney Sarah McMillon.

“Trapping expert Carter Niemeyer believes most lynx that are trapped are likely to die anyway. So the best thing to do is to keep them out,” McMillon said.

Trappers aren’t happy with the requirements but weren’t part of the settlement negotiations.

After taking input from its membership, the Montana Trapping Association submitted its recommendations for bobcat traps last week, which would allow a wider jaw spread but add other modifications to reduce injury, such as smooth jaws that offset when closed.

MTA president Toby Walrath, who intervened in the lawsuit as an individual, said he wished MTA could have had input into the settlement and MTA would consider litigation to ensure the longevity of trapping.

“It would seem to me that having additional trap modifications that are demonstrated to be better for any animal trapped would not be acceptable to the plaintiffs,” Walrath said. “I do not agree with the proposal as a result of the settlement.”

District 1 Commissioner Gary Wolfe tried to insert the MTA specifications as an amendment to the commission’s vote.

“I’ve researched this over the past month. These trap modifications, if we are really concerned about to limiting physical damage to lynx, will provide a scenario where injury to the cat’s limb will be minimized compared to what’s being proposed in the settlement,” Wolfe said.

But if the amendment passed, it would violate the settlement and land FWP back in court, said FWP attorney Becky Dockter.

“The value of having the bobcat regulations the way they are right now is that then we don’t have a settlement over our heads, something that we have to maneuver around,” Dockter said. “Then we’re just open to sitting down at the table and talking to all the parties and that would include the Montana Trappers’ Association.”

The plaintiffs said they didn't have enough time to consider the MTA proposal before the commission meeting but were open to discussion.

Dockter confirmed that the additional modifications advocated by the MTA could be added to the smaller trap.

Commissioner Richard Stuker supported Wolfe’s amendment saying that it would be more difficult to go back and change the trap specifications later.

But the amendment was defeated on a 2-2 vote and the commissioners passed the settlement requirements 3-1, with Wolfe dissenting.

Commission Chair Dan Vermillion urged the department to sit down with the plaintiffs and MTA to see if different requirements could be agreed on since the settlement allows modification.

“It should be very clear, if we don’t figure out a way to move forward, we could take a very different approach next year,” Vermillion said. “The only real disagreement is trap size and there’s a lot more to agree on than to disagree on.”