Release Clinic offers information and tools for pet owners
October 28, 2021
SEELEY LAKE – Standing behind a table with all kinds of different traps, trapper Bob Sheppard ask if anyone had ever done any trapping. Only a few people raised their hands. However, everyone raised their hand when he asked if people had used a mouse trap.
"That is all these are, a tool, just like a screw driver for an electrician," Sheppard said. "There are different sizes for the different animals. We have a variety of animals out there. You don't use a mouse trap to catch an elephant or an elephant trap to catch a mouse."
Sheppard, a 60-year trapper who lives near Ovando and is the chair of the Montana Trappers Association Education Committee, taught a Pet Release Clinic Monday, Oct. 18 in Seeley Lake. He, along with local trapper Rob Henrekin, shared information about foothold traps, conibear traps and snares. They also provided tips about how to keep pets safe when recreating during trapping season.
As a follow up to a question asked during the Clinic, Seeley Lake bird hunters Jon Haufler and his wife Carolyn Mehl, who were not at the Clinic, shared their experience of losing one of their two bird hunting dogs to a power-assisted (e.g. spring-loaded) snare and the lessons learned from that incident.
Foothold traps come in all different sizes and are designed to be a restraining device. However, Sheppard said with the proper technique, they can be lethal. It is up to the trapper to decide the disposition of the animal caught.
"It depends on your goal and the animal you are after," Sheppard said adding they have done a lot of modifications to foothold traps to allow trappers to release caught animals unharmed. "They are not designed to break legs or crush bones or do anything like that."
Named after its creator Frank Conibear, the conibear trap is a lethal trap designed to kill quickly. They can be single or double spring, come in various sizes for various species.
"Unless you are right there, the animal is not going to survive," Sheppard said. "This is the one where we have had most of our problems with people putting them in the wrong place."
The third type of trap discussed at the Clinic was a snare. Sheppard said these are the oldest devices used for capturing animals. It consists of a cable and a locking mechanism.
The snare is designed for an animal to put their head through a loop in the cable. When the animal pulls, the cable tightens down. Depending on the locking mechanism, they can be lethal or non lethal.
When they are set to be lethal, the positive lock cinches down as the animal pulls. It will maintain constriction pressure on the animal but is not capable of applying additional force once the animal stops pulling against it. They are designed to kill an animal within a minute or two.
Another type of lethal snare not discussed at the Clinic is a power-assisted snare lock, also called a power snare. It uses a built-in or external feature or mechanical device, such as a spring, that continues to provide constricting force even when the animal stops pulling and the cable is no longer taut. These are prohibited for wolves on public lands under the new regulations and are most often used for coyotes.
Snares that are non-lethal are called relaxing snares. A relaxing lock allows the snare loop to release pressure on the loop when an animal stops pulling against it. A relaxing snare is required in Critical Lynx Habitat under the new wolf trapping regulations.
To release a snare, Sheppard showed the attendees how to relax the lock by pulling back slightly on the locking mechanism allowing it to slide. He said the cable can also be cut but it takes a good set of cable cutters. Multi-tools are not strong enough in most cases.
When asked how someone knows if there are traps set in an area, Sheppard admitted that can be a challenge. He said within the furbearer season, Nov. 1 – mid-April, he looks for trapping sign. Sometimes trappers hang flagging near their sets. If they are trapping cats, they may hang a grouse wing, rabbit fur, CD or other reflective attractant. The MTA is also working with FWP on signage to help educate the people where trapping is occurring.
Henrekin said if he was traveling with his dog in an area he didn't know during trapping season, he would be reluctant to let his dog go down by the creek without a leash.
"There shouldn't be traps under bridges but sometimes people do stupid things," Henrekin said.
It is also legal for trappers to use food baits or gland lure. Henrekin said if a dog is walking down a trail and it starts smelling the air, it may have picked up on a scent and should be kept close.
Sheppard said typically trappers avoid high-use areas. Most will go out of their way to put their sets far enough away to avoid a conflict or won't set a trap there at all.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Game Warden Ezra Schwalm encouraged anyone who recreates with their dog to read the trapping rules and regulations. That will help people better understand where traps are legal and when they might encounter them in the field. Trapping is prohibited in many heavily used areas including trailheads and fishing accesses. There are also setbacks from motorized roads including 150 feet for wolves and 50 feet for other animals. However if a road closed to motorized traffic, except snowmobiles in the winter, there are no setbacks and traps can be set right off the trail.
Sheppard said one of the biggest problems they have is when a trap is set illegally. The next is pet owners who are not familiar with the trap and did not know how to release their pet.
"Not to say with a big powerful trap like [a conibear] that it is going to do it," Sheppard said. "But it is definitely going to give you a chance to save your pet."
Both Sheppard and Henrekin shared stories of their dogs getting caught in foothold traps and snares. While the dogs were excited they did not have any permanent damage.
Sheppard said dogs are most likely to run into a foothold trap set for fox or coyotes. A wolf trap is the same type of trap, just much more powerful and more challenging to open.
If a dog gets caught in a foothold trap, both the owner and dog are going to get excited. Sheppard said the owner needs to calm down first.
"Animals can sense and feel things and are extremely susceptible to how you are feeling," Sheppard said. "You're excited and they are already excited, it just makes them more excited. If you can calm down, then you can start calming your dog down."
Once the owner and dog are calmed down, he said approach a pet cautiously. From experience, Sheppard said all animals react differently if they get caught. Some will bite, others will be submissive and everything in between.
Sheppard said when approaching a dog, if there is any doubt that they will try and bite, place their head in the sleeve of a jacket or shirt to act like a muzzle. Then get a good hold of the dog's head, straddle it for support and balance, and step on the trap's side levers. Sheppard said 99 times out of 100 the dog will lift its paw right out.
"The biggest thing is to be careful and pay attention to your dog. Even though they are your absolute buddy, they are scared," Sheppard said. "It hurts to a degree because it has to be strong enough to hold them, but the biggest thing is it just scares the dickens out of them. Their natural reaction is fight or flight."
If someone can't release a pet from a foothold trap, Henrekin said the owner can leave the dog there and return with help. Someone can also call the local game warden or biologist directly or call 1-800-TIP-MONT. The pet owner could also remove the trap by following the chain to the drag, wire or staple securing the trap and take it with the dog to get help.
According to the Montana FWP Trapping regulations, it is illegal to tamper with or remove a trap. However if someone does get their pet caught in one, the pet owner should find the tag on the trap. While some have the trapper's name and phone numbers, others just have the trapper's license number. Contact FWP to identify the trapper from their license number.
Sheppard said if recreating in an area where conibears may be set, carry large zip ties to compress the spring. He strongly advocates to trappers that conibears should never be set on land. They should be fully submerged in water.
"Even the smallest of you can compress the biggest of these traps [with a large zip tie]," Sheppard said. "I would hate to see anybody lose their pet to something like that just because we've got some yo-yo out there doing something stupid."
Because most snares lock around the neck as the animal pulls, Sheppard recommended leash breaking a dog. This can prevent them from continuing to tighten the snare. He added keeping pets close, not allowing them to run wild, and within voice command will also allow the owner to know immediately if the dog has been caught so they can render assistance.
One of the attendees asked about the local dog that was killed by a snare while bird hunting. While the dog's owners Haufler or Mehl were not in attendance at the Clinic, they provided their story via email about the death of their four-and-a-half year old pudelpointer Riley and second pudelpointer Jake who was also caught by a coyote power snare. They also wrote a letter to the editor that can be read on page 2.
In the fall of 2020, the couple was upland bird hunting on state land in eastern Montana. About five minutes into their hunt, Jake was checking out the willows ahead of Mehl. She saw him get swiftly jerked up by the neck in a coyote snare placed across an opening in the shrubs.
"No amount of "leash-breaking" could have prevented the sheer momentum of his body from tightening that snare around his neck," wrote the Hauflers explaining that upland bird dogs, particularly pointing breeds, are bred to hunt pheasant and other game birds with considerable drive and at high rates of speed.
Mehl got to Jake as quickly as possible and called for Haufler to help free him from the snare.
Jake was caught in a power snare, with a spring-loaded locking device that applies constricting pressure on the cable even after the animal stops pulling. The Hauflers wrote that the spring applies significant pressure to the release mechanism, making it impossible to easily release by hand. The most efficient way to release it is to cut the cable which can only be done with a non-typical, heavy-duty cutting tool that can cut aircraft cable.
The pliers and multi-tools they had with them were totally useless for cutting the snare cable. However it allowed them to dismantle the spring device within a few minutes and free Jake.
While they were working to release Jake, Haufler called for Riley who was hunting about 150 yards ahead. His GPS tracker showed he was returning. When he had not arrived after a few minutes and Mehl no longer needed help, Haufler went looking for him. Riley was 35 yards away, caught in two snares and already dead.
According to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks 2021 Furbearer Trapping regulations, no license is required for resident trappers/hunters or nonresident hunters to take predatory animals. Predatory animals, including coyote, red fox and any other individual animal causing depredations upon livestock, are unregulated under the jurisdiction of the Department of Livestock (Montana Code Annotated 81-7-101). Coyotes can be trapped year round without a trapping license on public land.
Following the incident, the Hauflers learned that trappers frequently place coyote snares in clusters to capture a family unit as they will congregate around a captured family member. In this case, there at least six snares in the area where their dogs were snared.
"We knew snares presented a risk and we thought we were prepared to handle them but we were not," the Hauflers wrote. "There was no way for us to know that snares were located where they were until we were in the midst of them. This information should also be shared at trapping clinics to ensure recreationists with multiple dogs understand the danger to all dogs."
Additional recommendations the Hauflers shared to help other dog owners be better prepared:
• All recreational users with dogs should carry heavy duty wire cutters capable of cutting through 3/16-inch hard cable used for coyote power-snares whenever they are recreating in the field. Be able to use them on a possibly panicked, struggling and sometimes biting dog.
• Learn how to release a dog from a snare (non-power types) by attending a workshop or watching a video online.
• Consider only running one dog per hunter. Coyote snares are often baited and set in clusters within a 10 to 30 yard radius of each other. If hunting with more than one dog, they can be snared within seconds of each other and require immediate attention.
• Think about and learn where snares are likely to be set. Shrub vegetation and fence-lines are potentially hazardous areas.
• Be vigilant about keeping visual contact with a dog, particularly in shrubby areas and dense vegetation where the animal may encounter a snare. A dog with a tight snare around its neck cannot make any sound.
• Should a snare be seen or encountered in the field, assume there are more. Immediately locate all dogs and get them on a leash to exit the area.
For more information about the Montana Trappers Association visit https://www.montanatrappers.org/. To learn more about trapper regulations visit https://fwp.mt.gov/hunt/regulations/furbearer-trapping
** Editor's Note: This article was updated Oct. 29 to more accurately reflect the FWP license requirements and regulations under the Department of Livestock as they relate to coyotes.