House of Representatives
Sponsored by Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY)
The Refuge from Cruel Trapping Act would amend the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 to prohibit the possession or use of body-gripping traps within the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). Body-gripping traps include snare, Conibear, and steel-jaw leghold traps.
The use of cruel body-gripping traps violates the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System and is a threat to the safety of wildlife, humans, and pets. The purpose of these protected lands is clear: to be an inviolate sanctuary for native wildlife. Brutal, indiscriminate traps endanger not only wild animals but also the millions of visitors who enjoy the nation’s 566 refuges each year. The NWRS cannot fulfill its goal of being a safe haven for animals and people alike until these traps are banned.
The National Wildlife Refuge System: Origins and Mission
President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national wildlife refuge on Pelican Island, Florida, in 1903 to protect imperiled bird species from the commercial feather trade. Today there are 566 refuges and 38 wetland management districts encompassing more than 150 million acres in the refuge system.
The NWRS is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and attracts more than 47 million visitors each year. According to the USFWS, most wildlife refuges are close to (or even in) urban areas, with “at least one wildlife refuge … within an hour’s drive of most major cities and more than 260 wildlife refuges … near smaller cities.”
The NWRS contains one of the most diverse collections of fish and wildlife habitats in the world and provides a home for more than 380 endangered species. Overall, the NWRS harbors species of more than 700 birds, 220 mammals, 250 reptiles and amphibians, and 200 fish.
The stated mission of the NWRS is “to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” By law, the secretary of the interior is charged with ensuring the “biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health” of the NWRS, in addition to providing for the conservation of fish and wildlife (16 U.S. Code § 668dd).
Current Status of Trapping in the National Wildlife Refuge System
A survey conducted by the USFWS revealed that more than half of all refuges allow trapping of wildlife. Trapping in the NWRS is allowed for predator control, facilities management, population management, recreation, commerce, and subsistence. Most of the trapping conducted by private citizens on refuges occurs for “commercial” and “recreational” purposes, according to the USFWS.
Based on past USFWS surveys, in the estimated 300 refuges that allow trapping, the vast majority of trappers utilize Conibear kill-type devices, steel-jaw leghold traps (which are banned in over 100 countries), strangulation snares, and “other body-hold devices.” Primary target animals trapped on refuges include raccoons, minks, foxes, beavers, coyotes, wolves, skunks, and bobcats.
Trapping is not considered a priority wildlife-dependent public use of the NWRS (as per the 1997 Refuge Improvement Act). Therefore, the activity is highly unregulated, and the USFWS does not publish regular and up-to-date information, records, or data concerning trapping within the NWRS. Unlike with hunting and fishing, the USFWS is not required to publish trapping regulations in the Federal Register.
Indiscriminate and inhumane nature of body-gripping traps
Body-gripping traps—such as snares, Conibear traps, and steel-jaw leghold traps—are inhumane and inherently nonselective, meaning they indiscriminately injure and kill nontarget animals, including endangered and threatened species and even pets.
Steel-jaw leghold traps operate by slamming shut with bone-crushing force on the limb of any animal that trips the device. In agony and suffering trauma, victims may chew off their own trapped limb to escape.
Strangling snares tighten around the neck or body of their victims. A 2015 peer-reviewed study on neck snares reiterated that these traps are inadequate for “consistently and quickly” rendering animals unconscious and that neck snares are not only nonselective, but “impact seriously … the welfare of nontarget animals.”
Conibear traps are intended to break or crush an animal’s spinal column, but—as with other body-gripping traps and snares—their efficacy and accuracy are unreliable. Past studies have shown that multiple nontarget animals are captured for every one target animal caught in a Conibear trap and that these devices frequently fail to kill victims instantaneously.
According to the USFWS, primary nontarget species trapped on refuges include river otters, rabbits, domestic dogs and cats, and birds. Many of these animals die in the traps or as a result of trap-related injuries.
Public opposition to trapping in the National Wildlife Refuge System
Not surprisingly, public opinion surveys reveal that an overwhelming percentage of Americans believe trapping and the use of body-gripping traps in particular should be prohibited on all refuges.
A national Decision Research public opinion poll showed that 79 percent of Americans believe trapping on national wildlife refuges should be prohibited, while 88 percent believe wildlife and habitat preservation should be the highest priority of the refuge system.
Trappers constitute less than 0.1 percent of the population, and already have access to millions of acres of public and private lands outside of the refuge system to engage in trapping. As lands specifically intended to be safe havens for wildlife, refuges should not permit the use of cruel body-gripping traps.