The image of the fox caught in a trap near Placitas was surely startling to many Journal readers. In the weeks since the publication of this incident, a vibrant discourse has arisen concerning the merits and pitfalls of trapping and, more generally, managing wildlife in New Mexico. While recent articles have engaged these practices, there are three broader considerations to which readers should be aware when framing the current debate over wildlife management.
First, in considering trapping, one ought to contextualize this practice in its historical setting. As any school kid studying early U.S. history could tell you, trapping was undertaken out of physical necessity and for commercial opportunities. Aside from elites seeking to conspicuously display animal pelts, or the few individuals still truly living off the land, trapping animals to meet basic needs for clothing and food is not necessary in contemporary life. The commercial opportunities historically associated with trapping flowed from the use of trapped animals to meet individuals’ needs and, for the select few, desires. Between brick-and-mortar stores and the internet, one has access to more goods than Kit Carson could have ever imagined.
Given that trapping is no longer necessary to our physical and economic survival, it appears that Game and Fish regulations are simply protecting a cultural relic. The department would be better served by examining this practice from a different perspective given the contemporary context in which it occurs. Namely, the agency should move away from its regulatory position of protecting the practice of trapping to protecting wildlife from trappers with limited, necessity-based exceptions. Second, providing context for discussions on the interactions between native predators and livestock is likewise essential. As explored in Richard Manning’s book “Grassland,” most of our domesticated animals are neither native to nor adapted to survive the ecological conditions of their current habitats. The prime example, given by Manning, are short-horned cattle – indigenous to the verdant and mostly predator-less British Isles. Without our continuous intervention, this staple of the American diet would not be able to survive on its own in the persistently dry, yet highly variable, climate and once predator-rich environment that is New Mexico. To support these domesticated animals, we have and continue to alter ecosystems for our own ends.
This has resulted in two outcomes germane to the topic at hand. All other things equal, the elimination of predators from an ecosystem allows for the proliferation of their prey. This often appears to us in the form of ubiquitous rodents and a greater than usual number of large animals on our roads, especially at night. Thus, subsequent to our eradication of predators to ensure the viability of our interests and livelihoods, we are left with the task of managing the few remaining predators and the expanding populations of their prey.
From this arises the third consideration: the nature of wildlife management itself. As the reader can discern from the foregoing, we seek to manage wildlife out of the necessity created by our own interventions into the natural world. But, we must be critical of our ability to manage these natural systems. The adage of my favorite finance professor was always, “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” Yet, in its complexity, its often-hidden connections and unexpressed capacities, it seems dubious to assert that we can fully apprehend these systems and, thus, positively manage them.
We can, however, change our approach to management by accepting its negative sense – minimizing human interference in ecological systems. Our hubris and claims to knowledge are not nearly as robust as this position. We would be wise to follow the eloquent words of Republican President Teddy Roosevelt: “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
Bryce Zedalis is a PhD candidate in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He was a volunteer ranch-hand at Eagle Creek Ranch in Colcord, Okla., from 2005-2012.