The death of a great blue heron in the Bitterroot kicked up dust this month. Photos of the bird — its leg pinched in a leg-hold trap — popped up on the Facebook page of Trap Free Montana Public Lands on Jan. 29, and have since been shared 147 times. The first line of the nonprofit’s post refers to the images as “trapping in all it’s [sic] raw honesty and indiscriminate cruelty.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks investigated the situation, and Region 2 Warden Captain Joe Jaquith says the trap owner was issued a warning for failing to fill out an incidental take form for non-target species. Jaquith characterized the failure as an “oversight” on the part of the trapper, whom, he adds, FWP has never had issues with before. Though great blue herons are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, incidental capture itself isn’t illegal. Not that FWP has much experience with this particular scenario.
“I’ve been a warden for over 30 years, and it’s the first time I’ve ever had anybody with a heron in a trap,” Jaquith says. “So it’s really a very, very unusual occurrence. It’s the first time I’d heard of it anywhere in the state.”
Setting the politics of trapping aside, similar incidents appear to be extremely uncommon in Montana, at least according to FWP citation data acquired by the Indy. Those records reveal that from 2005 to 2015, agency law enforcement logged only one case involving the killing or possession of protected wild birds by a trapper. That incident occurred in December 2006 in Beaverhead County and resulted in a $100 fine.
Citations for failing to report incidental captures are also fairly rare. FWP recorded just one violation of failing to report the snaring of a non-target species statewide between 2005 and 2015, and 17 violations of failing to report trapping of a big-game animal. All but two of those incidents resulted in fines ranging from $50 to $220. The most common trapping-specific violation statewide, according to the data, is the setting of traps without name and address tags, accounting for 67 citations over that same span, with results ranging from dismissals to $250 fines.
Regarding incidental captures, Jaquith says it would be difficult to make them illegal, as there’s no apparent intent to trap non-target species. But when it does happen, FWP wants to know. Incidental capture forms are submitted to the state furbearer coordinator, Jaquith explains, and if certain non-target animals are winding up in traps with increased frequency, it may indicate the need for a regulation change.
“If our investigation finds that the trapper has a ticket coming, they will get cited for it,” Jaquith says. “But at the same time, if we investigate some of these and there is no violation even though there’s people that think that there should be … we’re supposed to be as nonpartisan about it as possible.”