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Who should decide if trapping should be banned?

Until three years ago it was legal to kill beavers ("harvest them, as the Massachusetss Division of Fisheries and Wildlife likes to say) by breaking their spines in the steel jaws of Conibear traps. You would then sell the pelts to fur buyers. But on November 5, 1996, voters approved a ballot initiated called the Wildlife Protection Act, which bans all body-gripping traps. Now the industrious beavers of Fort Pond Brook and similar habitats across the state can do their thing without sportsmen killing them for profit.

Before the vote, sportsmen and wildlife managers mounted a clumsy defense of recreational trapping. When the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife hatched a news release listing the alleged deficiences of the initiative, it was cited by the state's Office of Campaign and Political Finance for using state funds to influence voters. The proponents, on the other hand, conducted a brilliant political campaign. They called themselves the ProPAW Coalition (Protects Pets And Wildlife); they ran TV ads showing a cat struggling in a leghold trap and a dog with a missing leg; they flooded the media with the mantra Ban Cruel traps; and they won with 64 percent of the vote.

On its journey to wherever it is going, the world has left in the dust the pastime of trapping animals for fun and profit. The 16-member European Union has outlawed leghold traps and will ban fur imports from Canada Russia, and the United States unless they do the same. According to independent surveys, 95 percent of Americans approve of fishing and 73 percent approve of hunting.

Yet 59 percent disapprove of recreational trapping, and 74 percent want legholds banned. Not all of them are "antimanagement." Wayne Pacelle, vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States and main architect of the Massachusetts Wildlife Protection Act, as well as similar ballot initiatives around the country, has it exactly right when he defines recreational trapping as "a vestigial practice" from the market-hunting era. But now that the vestigal practice of harvesting beavers with body-gripping traps (the only kind practical for recreational trappers) has been outlawed in Massachusetts, a lot of people who voted to "ban cruel traps" aren't so happy.

Prior to 1996 the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife would tattle on nuisance beavers to licensed trappers, who would then conduct what Deblinger calls surgical strikes. "It was a great system. The trappers made a little money, the division collected a little license revenue, and the public got its beaver problems solved at no charge." Even with trappers taking about 1,800 beavers a year, the population had been growing, but when the trap ban came in it exploded. In the past two and a half years the beaver population of Massachusetts has increased from 18,000 to almost 55,000.

Beaver control is effected by not recreational trappers but by professional exterminators. The "cruel" Conibears, which cost $18 each, weight 2 pounds, and killed instantly, have been replaced by "humane," 25-pound live traps that cost $250 each and hold the terrified animals for hours until they can be bashed on the head and thrown away. The beaver dam offending the human residens of the marsh had been breached illegally by a person or persons impatent with the bureaucratic process. "It's happening every day, all over the state," said French. Not only are fish, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates at risk, but a sudden water-level drop can freeze shut the entrance holes of beaver lodges, in which case the occupants not-so-humanely starve to death.

Ballot innitiatives, legal in 24 states, were rarely used to restrict hunting or traping until this decade. From 1940 to 1990 only one succeeded. Since 1990, 11 of 19 have succeeded. Naturally, this doesnt' sit well with trained professionals hired by the public to make the very decisions the public now insistsa on making for them. Donald Whittaker of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Steven Torres of the California Department of Fish and Game go so far as to write that the ballot initiatives "may be the single greatest challenge to natural resources management that will face individually and as a profession." And Scott Williamson of the Washington, D.C.-based Wildlife Management Institute says this: "These votes are being cast in an information vacuum.

The system can be manipulated by interests with the most money and the most advertising savvy. Petition signatures may be collected by paid circulators who work from lists of voters known to support or oppose certain isues. I don't believe that's a good way to make policy." Such information vacuums norture what the framers of our constitution called the "tyranny of the majority." Even proponents at Jeffersonian democracy considered ballot initiatives dangerous and undesirable. That's why the United States is one of the few nations that does not permit them in national elections.

As Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts's delegate to the Constituation Convention, declared in 1786: "The evils were experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not lack virtue but are dupes of pretended patriots....They are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false rumors circulated by designing men."

Certainly there was no shortage of false rumors circulated by the proponents of Massachusetts's recent trap ban. For example, the cat in the ProPAW ad was caught in a toothed bear trap of a type that has not been permitted in Massachusetts for 75 years. In fact, in all eight ProPAW film segments the "cruel traps" depicted were already illegal. Yet the state wildlife managers couldn't set the record straight without risking further discipline by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

So does all this mean that conservationist should work to ban ballot initiatives? Yes, at least the ones that erode state management authority, argues a year-old alliance of sportsmen's groups called the Ballot Issues Coalition (BIC). BIC contends that fish and wildlife have traditionally been held in public trust by the states and that management of these resources is therefore a "non-delegable duty" that cannot be relinquished to voters.

BIC and the National Trappers' Assocation vow to file suits to overturn ballot initiatives in Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington. But what recourse will they have when game and fish agencies mismanage game species and then stifle public debate? It happens all the time. "Few people in America think ballot initiatives are the bst way to decide wildlife-management issues," observes bear biologist Tom Beck. "But ballot initiatives are a form of populism, and historical analysis suggests that the populiost approaches work when the masses feel government is not listening or is dominated by a small vested interest."

Hurtful ballot initiatives are largely avoidable, if only game and fish agencies would smarten up. "Historically, wildlife-management professionals have had very poor people skills," comments the vice-president of the Wildlife Management Instituate, Lonnie Williamson. "They need good information and education departments that don't just talk to the public but listen to it. Yet with most of the states, information and education is last to get money and first to get cut." Even more important than good information is good credibility, but wildlife managers are adept at squandering it. If managers give the public a chance to make itself heard and if they make sure it understands the agency's mission, they won't have to worry about bad ballot initiatives. But frequently the public gets cut out of the loop.

In Massachusetts, for example, there were two other parts of the ProPAW initiative. One, which failed to attract mainstream environmentalists, prohibited the traditional and not unsporting use of dogs to hunt Massachusetts's well-managed bears. But the other, which won the avid support of the environmental community, did away with the archaic requirement that five of seven menbers of the Fisheries and Wildlife Board must have been licensed hunters, fishers, or trappers for at least the previous five years.

It's true that in states like Massachusett, sportsmen, not the general public, pay for wildlife management. But that's why "nongame" species (the 99.99 percent of life that can't legally be shot) receive relatively little attention. The men and women who staff these agencies are trained, hired, and legally mandated to manage all species. But when they are denied general funds and depend instead on the paltry revenue from sales of hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses, sportsmen tend to dominate the decision-making and frequently injure their own interests.

Gerald Bertrand, who as president of the Massachusetts Audobon Society committed the organization to help sponsor the ProPAW initiative and write the board-reform measure, puts it this way: "The best boards are the ones that recognize the interest of the public and use that interest to save habitat." As a case in point Bertrand cites Arkansas, where there is no special-interest requirement for service on the state game and fish board and where every citezin who cares about fish and wildlife - not just sportmen - can participate in wildlife decision-making. In 1996 voters approved a visionary ballot initiative that nets the Game and Fish Commission $17 million annually from an 1/8-cent sales tax on all goods. The commission polled the public on how it wanted the funds spent. The answer, now policy, was: law enforcement, habitat purchase, and education.

States like Arkansas don't have to conted with the degree of anti-blood-sport sentiment prevalent in Massachusetts and other highly urban states. Still, the Arkansas experience teaches that when resource agencies educate the public and then involve it in policy-making, great things happen - for fish, for wildlife, for sportsmen, and for nonsportsmen.

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