Wildlife Investigation

Neck snare is a 'non-forgiving and nonselective' killer, former trapper says

"Oh my God. I couldn't believe it."

Bob Norie is talking about the day in 2010 he found his dog trussed up tight in a neck snare set by a Wildlife Services trapper along a hiking trail in the Boise National Forest in Idaho.

Loops of wire coiled around the dog's neck, torso and right rear leg, slicing into its flesh. Unable to move, the animal lay near a blood-splattered log. Worse yet, it had chewed its foot off in a desperate attempt to escape.

"This was a shocking thing," said Norie, a 61-year-old forestry contractor from Oregon. "Sometimes I try not to think about it because it hurts too much."

Made from galvanized aircraft cable, neck snares are one of Wildlife Services' most widely used tools. But that popularity comes with a catch: Neck snares are also indiscriminate, kill in grim fashion and pose a special danger to golden eagles.

"They are plum non-forgiving and nonselective," said Gary Strader, a former Wildlife Services trapper.

Strader set neck snares on public and private land across Nevada to kill coyotes but was surprised how many other animals he caught.

"If it walked down the trail I had a snare in, then it was going to get caught, no matter what it was," Strader said. "I have caught skunks, badgers, kit foxes, bobcats, (mountain) lions, deer, elk, dogs, (rac)coons, porcupines, red fox, gray fox and antelope."

Agency records show neck snares have killed more than 50 "non-target" species since 2006 – 5,700 animals in all – from armadillos to opossums, wild turkeys to black bears.

But agency officials say neck snares kill the right animal more than 95 percent of the time and are often equipped with "breakaway devices" that allow larger animals to escape.

"Our policy is we want to minimize non-target takes," said William Clay, deputy administrator of Wildlife Services.

California, which banned leg-hold traps in 1998, is now a neck-snare hot spot. Since 2008, nearly 8,000 animals, mostly coyotes, have died in federal snares here, behind only Texas. Agency records, reported by trappers in the field, show just 14 were caught by mistake – about 0.002 percent.

"Wildlife Services information indicates that snares are selective," said agency spokesperson Larry Hawkins.

But Strader said such numbers don't reflect reality. "The field guys do not report even a fraction of the non-target animals they catch," he said.

And breakaway devices on snares often fail, he added.

"The success rate I had was less than 25 percent," Strader said. "If there is entanglement, which in almost all cases there is, then the breakaway will not work at all."

Like a hangman's noose, neck snares are designed to cinch tight around an animal's neck, strangling it quickly. But it doesn't always work that way.

"Snare damage is ugly, and I have seen a lot of it in my day," said Carter Niemeyer, a 65-year-old retired Wildlife Services district supervisor.

"Neck snares can often catch an animal around the body or by a limb which will cause irreparable severe and constriction injuries resulting in the loss of the limb or slow death," Niemeyer said.

In Nevada, Strader attached his snares, sometimes 200 or more, to brush and trees along trails where coyotes walked.

But he found golden eagles got caught, too, because they were drawn to carcasses he left in the area to attract coyotes, a practice called baiting.

"The problem is, eagles eat until they can eat no more. Then they have to get in the air, but it takes a long runway for them to get off the ground. They start running down the trail you set your snares on (and) end up getting caught and killed," said Strader.

"Eagles are very vulnerable to snares," said Niemeyer. "I can guarantee you that probably most Wildlife Services trappers who use snares have caught eagles."

Agency records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act provide actual documentation.

"I believe this eagle was attracted to my snares by a non-target deer capture and also a target coyote capture," wrote one agency trapper after finding a golden eagle dead in a neck snare in Wyoming on New Year's Eve 2008.

Two weeks later, two more eagles were found dead in federal neck snares in Wyoming.

"Coyote carcasses left from predator management acted as a draw for scavenging eagles," a Wildlife Services supervisor wrote in a memo.

The snare that caught Norie's dog in Idaho was set to catch a wolf. A Forest Service investigation found Wildlife Services was not authorized to deploy the device at the time (although it did have permission earlier).

Wildlife Services maintained it did nothing wrong. "Any suggestions that the snare was not authorized are completely inaccurate," said agency spokesman Lyndsay Cole.

Norie's dog survived, but its leg was amputated. Later, Norie met with an agency manager in Boise.

"I wanted to know what was going on," said Norie. "What appalled me is the guy stood there and told me: 'We really don't have to tell anybody what we're doing.' "

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