Montana trappers, having mistakenly snagged protected species like
bald eagles or wolves, or even unprotected species like domestic
dogs, might wonder what Montana’s lax regulations require them to do next.
The answer? Shoot, shovel and shut up—in essence, get rid of the
evidence. A day after Christmas, one Bitterroot couple came face
to face with
that regulatory void and, at the center of it, their dead dog.
Peg Klouda and Brian Cherry have lived in Victor, up against the
Bitterroot mountains, for two decades. From his kitchen table near
a wide window,
Brian Cherry, a lean man with blue eyes and gray hair, tells the
story of losing his dog. Most days of the week, he says, he and Klouda
their dogs in the woods. They have four, all rescues or pound-puppies.
The dogs walk off-leash and aside from the Great Pyrenees, the
pups stick close, he says. The Wednesday before Christmas, Cherry
out for a walk—“the same walk we’ve been doing for 20 years.” This
time, Tio, the 3-year-old Great Pyrenees, didn’t come home. Just once,
Cherry’s lip trembled when he talked about it.
Usually, when the Pyrenees wandered off during a walk, he returned
home within an hour, Cherry says. When Tio failed to return, Klouda
called Cherry. “She was concerned enough that I left work,” he
says. He searched until 10 that evening. The next morning, he hiked
few hours before going to work but saw no sign of their giant white
Christmas came and went. “I probably logged 80 miles that weekend
looking for my dog up in the hills,” Cherry says. On Sunday, he
“I came upon the trap line and followed it to every trap that I saw,” says
Cherry. When he saw white hair and blood marking a dirt trail, he followed
it, knowing what he would find. At the bottom of a ravine was Tio,
victim of the shoot-and-shovel routine. “He was shot twice, straight
down through the top of the head,” says Cherry.
That night, the day after Christmas, Cherry and Klouda buried the
dog and unearthed a desire to strengthen Montana’s trapping regulations.
In Montana, trapping is a minimally regulated sport. Montana Fish,
Wildlife & Parks issues 3,500 trapping licenses annually. Many
species, designated predators, can be trapped without a license.
In both 2002 and 2003, FWP officers wrote roughly 30 trapping citations
each year. (Shooting a trapped domestic dog will not garner a trapper
a citation from FWP.) By comparison, in both 2002 and 2003, FWP
issued nearly 1,000 hunting violations.
The owner of the traps, who admits to killing Tio, wants to be identified
only by his first name, Fred. “I had to shoot it,” he says. “I couldn’t
get it out of the trap. It wanted to bite me.” He was intending to
trap coyotes, for which no license is required. He was using legal
traps with the permission of the landowner, he says. Additionally,
according to Fred, the dog had been chasing livestock. (The landowner,
contacted by the Independent, did not comment on that allegation.) “The
law is on my side,” Fred says.
Criminally speaking, Fred is correct:
Animal cruelty laws aren’t applicable if the dog was, as Fred says,
chasing cattle, explains Ravalli County Undersheriff Kevin McConnell.
(Legally, he says, Cherry could have been—but wasn’t—cited for having
a dog “running at large.”)
FWP won’t cite Fred for shooting Tio, either.
“There is no trapping violation,” explains Doug Johnson, Bitterroot
game warden for FWP, who was informed of the incident by both Cherry
and Fred. “There is no criminal citation that I can issue.”
Once or twice a year, Johnson receives reports of domestic animals
caught in traps. This is the first time he has had a call about
a trapper having shot a dog dead. Many trappers, Johnson says, have
dogs and take care to avoid snaring non-target species, like domestic
dogs, by removing or deactivating traps during weekends, when they
know that foot—and pet—traffic is higher.
By the looks of it, pet-owning Montanans are currently reliant on
the ethics and good graces of trappers. Johnson says he has no
way to estimate the number of trappers working in the area, the number
of traplines set or their locations. And he doesn’t believe that
implementing regulations would go far in helping him keep a closer
eye on trappers.
“It comes down to a manpower issue,” says Johnson, who’s responsible
for the northern part of Ravalli County, an area of roughly 889
While shooting Tio doesn’t appear to have been a criminal offense,
the action isn’t condoned by the Montana Trappers Association (MTA).
“I don’t know that that’s ever justified,” says Paul Schmidt, president
of the 30-year-old, 563-member organization. Schmidt himself traps,
and accidental trappings are inevitable, he says. “I’ve released a
lot of dogs,” he says.
Schmidt carries a long pole with a loop at one end with which to
do so. It’s called a catch-pole, and it allows a trapper to restrain and
then free an “incidental catch.”
Trappers’ practices and ethics vary. But attempts to regulate trappers’ actions
are often seen as a direct assault on Montana’s deeply rooted agricultural
community. Ranchers, having lost sheep or cattle to coyotes— or to
domestic dogs “running at large”— can hardly be expected to welcome
regulations that weaken their ability to protect their livelihood.
(Fred says he
is often asked to trap coyotes by ranchers.)
“I don’t think it’s realistic to ban trapping forever,” Cherry says. “I
don’t think that’s any place we can go.”
Instead, he wants strengthened regulations: public notification
of the location of trap lines; a requirement that trappers check
every 12 hours instead of every 48; required trapper education
courses; and accountability on the part of the trapper for “accidental
Rep. Gail Gutsche, D-Missoula, has recently received a handful of
inquiries, including Cherry’s, about revising trapping laws. She
meets with FWP agency officials this week about the possibility
rules that regulate trapper/domestic animal interactions.
In the meantime, the Victor couple’s only recourse is to pursue the
matter in civil court. Cherry and Klouda are trying to decide whether
to sue for destruction of property — whatever Tio might have been
worth on the open market.