A Conservationists View on Trapping
Trapping is a controversial issue in today’s world. Most of the controversy comes from a lack of information and understanding. At the core of the issue is humane treatment of animals balanced with smart management of the natural world. Any true outdoorsman and nature lover cringes at the thought of an animal in pain but informed people realize that good management is the key to a healthy ecosystem.
To be fair, the imbalance that necessitates trapping today is our fault. The reason that so many coyotes, raccoons, opossums, and other smaller predators are everywhere is because we killed-off the alpha-predators.
Big predators are the key to controlling small predator numbers. The big cats and wolves were wiped out in the mid-west and south before the turn of the 1900’s. There are a few cougars hanging on in remote areas of some states today but the population is nowhere what it was before. The question on many minds is “So what? Why should we care that the wolves and lions are all gone?” I hate to quote a Disney movie, but “The Lion King” sums up the reasoning best. It’s called the circle of life. When a part of that circle is removed it causes problems, sometimes big problems that take a long time to show themselves. It also creates an opportunity for other creatures to move into different roles. The removal of the large predators left room to grow for the smaller predator populations and that is where we are today.
The outdoor media has called some attention to this imbalance and they have done it by targeting coyotes and bobcats as large-scale deer and turkey killers. This puts them squarely in competition with hunters, which puts them squarely in the crosshairs of many riflescopes. Anyone that has spent time outside at sundown can tell you, the coyotes are everywhere. Coyotes do prey on deer and an occasional turkey but I believe their impact on these two species has been overestimated. Bobcats are well equipped to take deer or turkey and probably take a few of both each year. Bobcat numbers have remained about the same through the years. Even before the coyote explosion, we had good numbers of cats. That’s what biologists think anyway. Getting an accurate count of bobcats is dang near impossible, they are just too sneaky. The best guess is that their impact on native prey animals is not a problem.
While coyote, bobcat, and even fox need population management, studies on the diet of these animals reveals a pattern. By and large all three survive on rodents and rabbits. This is their niche; they are made to prey on these small mammals. That being said, strict job descriptions don’t work in the wild, critters do what they must to survive. A few deer and turkey will be on the menu for the coyote and bobcat along with a turkey or two to the fox. In my opinion however, the smaller meat-eaters are the bigger problem.
Mike Fischer of the Arkansas Trappers Association agrees with this idea. He pegs these opportunistic feeders as the dry land trapper’s prime targets. “Raccoons, opossums, and skunks aren’t just meat-eaters, they will eat anything. Being omnivorous is an advantage in the survival of a species.”
This flexibility along with the loss of the top predators has resulted in big numbers of what biologists call mesopredators. Fischer is clear on his view that trapping today is more than recreational, “Trapping is our responsibility as conservationist.”
Eggs of ground-nesting birds are on top of the menu for small predators and ground nesting birds are facing problems right now. A quick glance at this year’s deer harvest records will tell you that coyote and cat numbers are having little to no effect on the deer population. Now check the turkey and quail numbers. Dig a little further and find out what’s going on with other ground-nesting birds like whip-poor-wills or least terns on the sandbars of the Arkansas River. I’ll give you a hint, it ain’t good. Habitat loss is the number one reason for the decline but losing a large part of the next generation to predation makes it even tougher.
This is where we step in, even though our “stepping in” has caused much of the problem. As stewards of the land it falls on us to restore balance, or at least push the scales toward it. In a perfect world the answer would be to bring back the big predators, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We do what we can and trapping is what we can do.