About four months ago, a US Forest Service employee named Josh Bransford received a phone call from a Forest Service law enforcement officer, advising Bransford that one of his leghold traps had caught an adult gray wolf, and that several passing hunters had shot at the animal. Bransford arrived at the scene, discovered the trapped and wounded wolf, and had someone take a photo of himself smiling in front of the suffering animal (see image above, click to enlarge). He then killed it.
The story might have ended there, but Bransford posted the photo at a pro-trapping website called trapperman.com, along with joking remarks boasting of the wolf's size. The photo went viral on the Internet, igniting a firestorm of outrage and protest. The public debate has turned ugly, including vicious comment threads and even emailed death threats.
According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Bransford was trapping legally (the 2011-2012 trapping season was the first since wolves were delisted from the Endangered Species Act), with "all required licenses and permissions to trap wolves", and had undergone a trapper education course. The US Forest Service issued a statement that it does not condone animal cruelty, but that Bransford was on his own time, therefore the USFS has no jurisdiction.
Only be carefully combing through the news articles and commentary which appear during a Google search of Josh Bransford does one discover several salient facts ~
- Idaho trapping guidelines require every licensed trapper to check his traps every 72 hours or sooner. Bransford was running between 75 and 150 traps. One trapper commented that it would be impossible to keep up with that many traps unless one were (a) doing it on government time, or (b) allowing more than 72 hours to pass between checks. Either way, Bransford was playing fast and loose with the law. He has a past record of hunting and fishing violations.
- On his trapperman.com post (before it was removed), Bransford claimed that at first he was 'put out' by the hunters shooting at the obviously-trapped wolf (lest the pelt be damaged), but then joked that in their place, he would probably have done the same thing, thus placing himself among the ranks of canned hunt thugs.
- A University of Colorado professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who has studied the social behavior of wolves and coyotes, noted that "That wolf was suffering immeasurably. Not only physically by having his foot locked in a trap, but also being shot at. This was not hunting. This was having an animal having its foot smashed in a trap and then shooting at it with bullets. This wolf was tortured."
- Finally, pro-wolf and anti-wolf, pro-trapping and anti-trapping arguments aside, Bransford did not immediately and humanely put the wolf out of its misery. He took time to joke with the hunters, and to have his photo taken with the still-living wolf first.
The episode has been covered by regional and national news sources, as well as circulating on social media websites. Here is perhaps the most representative coverage, including a description of the event, contact information for state and federal agencies, threats of violence against conservationist and anti-trapping organizations, and a fairly heated discussion among those who've read the information. Trapping proponents fiercely defend their trade, to the point of making profane death threats against those who disagree with them, including the anti-trapping group Footloose in Montana.
Most trapping opponents tend to be more tempered in their remarks. Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the group Center for Biological Diversity, said that "state officials have only done a cursory review and need to examine the matter further. If this is what passes as compliance with the Department of Fish and Game's rules, there's a serious problem with the adequacy of state regulation. Idaho Department of Fish and Game or the state's attorney general need to take a harder look. Trapping a wolf where it can be shot at by others, shooting at the wolf, and then letting the injured animal suffer while posing for pictures all constitute animal cruelty and reflect the free-for-all mentality on wolves prevailing in Idaho in the absence of Endangered Species Act protection." There have also been comments and petitions demanding that Bransford be fired by the US Forest Service for his actions.
This observer claims no neutrality on the issue. Regular readers know that I am opposed to so-called "sport" hunting, particularly hunting of predator species which keep game populations in check without human interference. I can understand subsistence hunting, but not sport or trophy hunting. If you want to truly test your fieldcraft, your wits, your endurance, then set aside your high-powered rifle with a scope, and hunt with a camera instead. You'll still get bragging rights from the photos you bring home, and the animal gets to live out its life.
I am particularly opposed to trapping. The practice is cruel and indiscriminate. No trapper can predict what animal (wild or domestic) or even human will step into that trap. Years ago when I was caretaker for a nature preserve in southern Arizona, a tract of land surrounded by national forest (where trapping is legal), one of our two dogs went missing. Shona was gone for three days. On the third day, I happened to be patrolling for poachers, and a slight movement in my peripheral vision caught my attention. It was our missing dog, caught in a leg-hold trap intended for bobcats. She was so weakened and dehydrated that she couldn't bark or whine, and her leg was swollen and purple. Another day and she would have been dead. Arizona law at the time required trappers to check their traps every 24 hours. This trapper clearly didn't care. I took Shona home, where she eventually recovered. And I destroyed and buried the trap.
If I had encountered that trapper, there's no telling how my outrage would have expressed itself. (I was younger and more impulsive in those days.) I later learned his identity, but my complaint to the state fish and game agency went unaddressed.
If I had encountered Josh Bransford on that fatal day in Idaho, there would certainly have been a verbal confrontation, even with several hostile armed hunters standing by. I would have taken my own photos, demanded to see IDs and hunting/trapping licenses, and if during that process I had to physically defend myself, so be it. I don't condone violence or threats of violence, but I'm so sickened by the torture and death of a magnificent animal, and the sight of the grinning jackass who trapped it, that I can understand the grief and rage of those who call for Bransford's job, or who would take his punishment into their own hands. That's what we have courts for, but for certain issues in the American West, the wheels of justice apparently turn in a slow and rusty manner, if at all.
It is supremely ironic that trapping apologists now portray Bransford as a victim of the "misguided ethics" of environmentalists. Take a look at the photo above. Which one is the victim?