Recent headlines about 15 cougars and an eagle that were caught in snares that had been set for wolves around Sundre have placed the practice of trapping back in the spotlight.
But the president of the Sundre Trappers' Association defends the use of snares and points to the changes that he says have made the devices more humane over the years. The design for a legal snare includes a spring that fires and tightens the noose after a catch, cutting off the carotid artery, which in turn renders the animal unconscious and dead within the span of about a minute, said Larry Nielsen.
However, if the snare catches a large animal that was not the intended prey, such as a grizzly bear or moose, the pull exerted on the trap will actually release the animal. That being said, bycatches are inevitable, he added.
“But you do everything you can to prevent them. As a trapper, that's what you're trying to do.”
As for the number of cougars apparently caught in the Sundre area — which Nielsen pointed out covers a vast amount of territory — he attributed that to a higher number of the predators making their way into the region.
“We're seeing a lot of cougars where they haven't been before,” he said, adding the higher population density increases the chance of inadvertently catching them.
“We have a tremendous number of cats around,” he said, adding that he has lost a couple of calves to cougars over the past five years.
Although he was aware that some local trappers had caught a number of cougars this year, Nielsen himself had not. He did catch five wolves, with a sixth that was able to exert enough pressure on the snare to release itself.
“To me, that's a lot better to lose the odd wolf than indiscriminately catch other animals,” he said.
Snares are always being tested, and when an effort was made in the 1990s to relocate wolves to the United States from Alberta to repopulate decimated numbers there, the same kind of traps were used, he said.
“We used exactly the same snares that we're using now without the kill spring and the stop on it, so it could only close far enough to tie them up.”
Additionally, restraining traps — or leghold snares — that are used by trappers are also used by researchers to capture wolves, collar them and release the animals back into the wild. The traps are specifically designed not to break bones in the animal's leg or feet, he said.
Although things can “absolutely” go wrong — Nielsen has had experiences with horses getting caught in leg snares — steps can be taken to reduce bycatches. The practice is also crucial if predator populations are to be managed. Trapping regulations dictate that snares should be set a specific distance from a bait station and to avoid placing them in certain areas, he said, adding trappers can also look for telltale signs that cougars are in an area to avoid setting snares there.
Trappers generally follow those rules, but at the same time, managing wolf populations will occasionally mean catching the odd cougar as the animals share the same territory, he said.
But the key point is that the main objective behind what trappers do is to manage wildlife, not eliminate it, he added.
“If you take out all the animals, you're out of a job!”
Predation has contributed significantly to the reduction of deer, elk and moose populations in the West Country, and there has also been an impact on bighorn sheep. Hunters and trappers have a vested interest in making efforts to conserve wildlife, he said.
“When you work with animals all your life, you have that kind of respect for them,” he said.
“When you talk to any trapper, I think you'll find the same thing — they're not ruthless individuals.”