Fish & Wildlife | Ecotrope

Dog's death sparks a fight over wildlife trapping

Ecotrope | Dec. 1, 2011 8:49 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:33 p.m.

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The McCurtain family dog Maggie was killed in a wildlife trap that was set within 50 feet of the family's back yard fence.

The McCurtain family dog Maggie was killed in a wildlife trap that was set within 50 feet of the family's back yard fence.

A wildlife trap intended to kill invasive nutria in a Gresham neighborhood wound up killing a neighbor’s dog, too.

Now, the dogs owners and a wildlife advocacy group are suing the federal agency that set the traps for $50,000 in damages.

In August, the McCurtain family found out too late just how close the government traps were to their home when their dog Maggie was caught and killed.

The traps were set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services in response to a request from the McCurtain’s neighborhood association to remove troublesome nutria. The agency manages wildlife conflicts and is often called to trap problem coyotes, bears and other predators.

The agency’s Oregon director David Williams said the nutria traps were set legally and with the association’s permission. The neighbors were all informed via e-mail that there would be traps in the common area around a nearby lake, where nutria had been burrowing holes and creating hazards.

But Denise McCurtain, who tried to free Maggie from one of the traps before it died, said she is still dumbfounded that no one told her there were deadly traps hidden under shrubs within 50 feet of her back yard.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to put this kind of trap within a certain distance of a residential dwelling or a public place,” she said. “How can they put a trap out that poses more danger to human life and animals than the animals they’re trying to kill?”

Three different types of Conibear traps.

Three different types of Conibear traps.

Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, said the it’s not all that unusual for pets to be killed in wildlife traps set by the USDA’s Wildlife Services. He gets dozens of calls a year from people with stories like the McCurtains’.

His group has jumped to the family’s defense and filed a tort claim today to recoup damages for Maggie’s death. But Fahy also has an eye on the bigger picture. He thinks Wildlife Services should be completely dissolved, and he’s been working for years to make it happen.

The agency is not doing anything private landowners couldn’t do on their own by hiring contractors, he said, and it’s too secretive about its operations.

“This is one of the most rogue federal agencies in existence today. It’s simply unaccountable,” he said. “We want to bring this to the light of day. This is not an isolated incident. This happens all the time.”

Whether Wildlife Services actually did anything wrong in this case is unclear. Fahy said the agency didn’t follow its own rules for using kind of trap that was set near the McCurtains’ home. It’s called a Conibear trap, and it kills animals by luring them with bait and clamping down on their necks.

Williams said there were signs posted around the area where the traps were set, but the signs now appear to have been vandalized.

The agency also switched trapping methods from visible cage traps to less visible – and lethal – Conibear traps because the cages weren’t working and the agency didn’t intend on relocating the invasive species, according to Williams.

McCurtain said the original notice sent to residents by the neighborhood association wasn’t clear about the danger posed by the traps themselves – only the nutria that could be caught in them.

Williams said residents were warned to keep their children and pets away from the traps. There aren’t any safety latches or instructions on how to release the trap if a pet gets caught. But the agency only sets traps upon request and with permission, he said, and it’s been almost three years since the agency’s operations have harmed any pets.

“The first thing I want to do is express my regret,” said Williams. “I’m a fellow pet owner myself. Certainly the focus of our agency is to help people manage wildlife conflicts of all types in a biologically sound way that avoids any non-target domestic animals or other wildlife species. Our track record is very good.”

McCurtain said she’s hoping Maggie’s story will help change the rules for what kind of traps Wildlife Services can put near people’s homes to avoid a repeat of what happened to her family.

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