The activity of animal trapping has two separate but related meanings. It describes the hunting of animals to obtain their furs, which are then used for clothes and other articles, or sold / bartered (see fur trade). Trapping also relates to the use of traps to catch animals for a variety of other purposes, most usually for food or pest control.
Trapping was widely used in the early days of North American settlements (such as the Canadian Fur Brigade). Native Americans trapped fur bearing animals with pits, dead falls, and rudimentary snares.
European trappers were the first whites to travel across the plains and into the Rocky Mountains in search of fur. While some trappers roamed out of personal curiosity, the monarchs and trading companies of Europe invested heavily into voyages of exploration. The race was on to establish trading posts with the natives of North America, as trading posts could also function as forts and legitimize territorial claims.
The white trappers used steel leg hold traps as well as snares and dead falls. Beaver was one of the main animals of interest to the trappers as the fur wore well in coats and hats. Beaver hats became popular in the early 1800s but towards the end of the century beaver became scarce in many areas and extirpated in others. The decline in key species of fur-bearers, due to over-harvesting, and the later emergence of the first regulatory laws marked the end of the heyday of unregulated trapping. Many trappers turned to buffalo hunting, serving as scouts for the army or leading wagon trains to California and other parts of the west.
Trapping is regularly used for pest control most commonly of beaver, coyote, raccoon, cougar, bobcat, Virginia opossum and fox in order to limit damage to farming, ranching, and property. Federal authorities in the United States use trapping as the primary means to control predators that prey on endangered species such as the San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica), California least tern (Sterna antillarum browni) and desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). Proponents claim that trapping can reduce numbers of predators in order to increase the populations of quarry species for hunting. They also claim that it can be used to control over-population or diseases such as rabies, mange, and tularemia. Trapping is also used for research and relocation of wildlife.
Some wildlife biologists support the use of regulated trapping for sustained harvest of some species of furbearers. They claim that trapping can be an effective method of managing or studying furbearers, controlling damage caused by furbearers, and at times reducing the spread of harmful diseases. These biologists believe that regulated trapping is a safe, efficient, and practical means of capturing individual animals without impairing the survival of furbearer populations or damaging the environment. They also support regulatory and educational programs, research to evaluate trap performance and the implementation of improvements in trapping technology in order to improve anmimal welfare.
Despite regulations, trappers sometimes leave traps unattended for long periods of time and trap animals out of season, leading to fines, restitution and trapping license revocations.
In Montana, a non-profit anti-trapping group named Footloose Montana, teaches people how to release their pets from animal traps. In the first four months of 2008, the group documented 12 dogs caught in traps during an undefined time period, three of which died. Trappers claimed that the dog owners shared the blame for these animal deaths and injuries. A golden eagle was also documented to have been killed in a conibear trap in January 2008 in Montana.
Snares are one of the simplest and are claimed to be one of the most effective traps. Snares are cheap to produce and easy to set in large numbers. A snare traps an animal around the neck or the body and tightens around the animal, restraining it. They are widely criticised by animal welfare groups for their alleged cruelty. UK users of snares accept that over 40% of animals caught in some environments will be non-target animals. While in the USA non-target catches reported by users of snares in Michigan are just over 10%. Some scientists believe that in animals which are trapped, pressure necrosis may have caused hidden injury to the animal, and that trapped animals should be taken to a vet rather than released. However, trappers claim that modifications and regulations now provide working snares that have relaxing locks that do not cinch down, break-away locks that open up after 250 pounds of pressure are exacted (allowing large dogs, calves and deer to remain unharmed), deer stops which prevent the snare from closing down so far as to catch a deer's leg, and live-catch stops that prevent the snare from closing to a point that chokes an animal of a certain size. Powered snares use the option of a spring to deposit the snare on an animal's leg or neck through the triggering of a spring mechanism.
Modified traps are now available that have thick smooth jaws and an "offset jaw" or a padded jaw in an attempt to reduce animal injuries. However these traps are more expensive and not widely employed except by research and conservation experts. Today's traps are specially designed in different sizes for different sized animals which trappers claim also reduces injuries.
The traps are often criticized for being indiscriminate, and non-target animals are sometimes caught in these traps, occasionally including dogs, cats, and endangered species. Trappers claim that these animals are usually able to be released unharmed and that research has shown that new varied size traps are not indiscriminate. They also claim that regulations regarding the placing and baiting of traps prevents injury or capture to most non-target animals. The foothold trap has been banned in some countries and in seven U.S. states (Washington, California, Massachusetts, Colorado, New Jersey, Florida, and Rhode Island). Humane organizations criticize leghold traps for breaking animals' legs and leaving them in pain often for prolonged periods of time. A 1992 USDA study on coyote trapping indicated that some steel jaw traps leave up to 45% of trapped animals moderately to severely injured. These are the preferred traps used for capture and relocation of endangered and threatened species such as Wolf, Otter and Bobcat.
In states that have banned the use of the foothold trap, a number of issues have arisen. In Massachusetts, the beaver population increased from 24,000 in 1996 to over 100,000 beaver in 2006. Coyote attacks on humans rose from 4 to 10 per year, during the five year period following a 1998 ban on leghold traps in Southern California.
Manufacturers of newer types of traps designed to work only on raccoons claim that these traps are dog-proof. These traps are small, and rely on the raccoon's grasping nature to trigger the trap. They are sold as coon cuffs, bandit busters and egg traps just to name a few.
Glue traps made using natural or synthetic adhesive applied to cardboard or similar material. Bait can be placed in the center or a scent may be added to the adhesive. Glue board traps are used primarily for rodent control indoors. Glue traps are not effective outdoors due to environmental conditions (moisture, dust) making the adhesive ineffective. Glue traps are not used by animal trappers or fur trappers and are almost exclusively used by homeowners for rodent control. Many animal welfare groups, such as the Humane Society, oppose the use of glue traps for their cruelty, since animals desperate to escape may chew off their own legs, and sizable sections of fur and skin may be ripped out as they struggle. Glue traps are not used for trapping birds, but sticky repellent can be applied to surfaces to temporarily repel perching birds from building ledges and statues. The adhesives registered for this use are classified as tactile repellents.
In 2008, a licensed nuisance wildlife control operator in Topeka, Kansas was found guilty of animal cruelty for accidentally trapping and killing a domestic cat in a trap set for skunks. The article did not mention what type of trap was used.
Other exclusion devices exist for snares. The catching of non-target animals can be minimized through the use of devices that exclude animals larger than the target animal. Deer stops are designed to release leg-snared deer and cattle, and are required for snare usage in many states of the USA. Precautions can be taken in the case of small animals as well. One UK report stated that researchers using 1.65 mm smooth wire, instead of the larger 2 mm standard wire, had brown hares caught about as frequently as foxes, with about half of those rabbits being released unharmed. (, section 2.7) The UK report goes on to say that using the standard, larger wire in addition to equipping the snares with rabbit stops eliminated the unwanted catch of brown hares. Guidelines can also advise against setting of killing traps, such as the conibear or "body gripper" where domestic pets or protected animals are likely to be.
Trapping continues to be a profession in many areas around the world, although relatively few people make a full-time living from it. Competition from farm-raised animals and fluctuating populations of wild animals have made trapping a minor industry. Fur prices have trended downward for many years, resulting in a dramatically lessened economic incentive.
Some species have collapsed to such an extent that harvesting them is not allowed in some locations. This is especially true of predator species such as Canadian lynx within the lower 48 United States. Yet certain other fur-bearing species, including beaver and coyote, have shown dramatic population increases in certain regions.