A petition is circulating on the Navajo reservation to ban the use of steel-jaw leghold traps commonly used by hunters and trappers on Navajo lands to catch fur-bearing animals such as rabbits, deer, bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions.
Navajo citizen Ron Toahani Jackson is spearheading the move, which he said is necessary for public safety and humanitarian reasons.
“Number one it’s a public safety issue,” Jackson told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Number two is what it does to an animal—the pain and suffering an animal goes through while in that trap. Number three, cultural and traditional values of Native people say that we are supposed to respect our animal brothers and sisters.”
Despite the fact that steel-jaw leghold traps have been outlawed in nearly 90 countries, it is a legal method of hunting here in the U.S. and in Canada. These traps are still used on Navajo lands for several reasons, including sustenance hunting, the fur trade, pest control and wildlife management.
“The use of steel leghold traps is accepted among the wildlife management community,” said Gloria Tom, director of the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife. “A lot of times we have conflicts that occur between certain species—coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions. They kill livestock.”
While acknowledging that leghold traps are inhumane, she said that wildlife threatening livestock must be controlled, and that the problem is not restricted to the Navajo Nation.
“There’s a balance somewhere that needs to be achieved,” Tom said. “Obviously there’s an issue about the humanness of traps, and issues pertaining to the humanness of hunting. That’s everywhere. That’s not just here on the Navajo Nation. It’s a worldwide issue.”
The petition is being circulated through the informal grassroots network on the reservation. Jackson said he wants to draw more notice from the media and in particular to gain the attention of Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye.
“We have gotten a worldwide response on this,” said Jackson. “The Navajo people need to know that we are being challenged. A lot of people say, ‘I thought you Indians were one with nature.’ I feel like I need to get this issue out there, and the worldwide condemnation of the way the Navajo Nation leadership is failing to address this issue.”
Jackson believes that the ban is meeting with government resistance because of the fur industry.
“As far as hunting, I’m not against that, as far as subsistence,” he said. “I’m against the way these animals suffer while they’re caught in these traps.”
Tom refuted Jackson’s assertion that trapping is virtually unfettered on the Navajo Nation.
“It’s a highly regulated activity,” Tom said. “Anyone who wants to use wildlife, whether it’s deer or if it’s bobcat for trapping, they have to have a permit to do so by my department. The process they go through is pretty restrictive. They can’t be on our blacklist for law enforcement violations or failure to meet our requirements. You have to be in good standing with us and you have to know where you want to go. You don’t just get an open hunting permit to where you can go everywhere. You’re restricted to certain areas.”
Livestock survival and family support must trump wildlife concerns, Tom said, adding that she and others welcome the issue’s new visibility.
“The media coverage that we’re getting on this issue is beneficial,” she said. “It informs people of what the rules and regulations are here. It brings to light other things. There is a need to remove fur-bearing animals. A lot of our people still have a need to depend on livestock as a means to support their families.”
As of around 6 p.m. Eastern Time on January 27, the petition had received nearly 2,500 of the 3,000 desired signatures.
For his part, Jackson himself feels at risk from the traps.
“Every time I go out to take photos now or check on the cows, I have to worry about stepping into a trap, or my dogs,” said Jackson. “It’s a feeling of uncertainty. It’s a violation of my rights. I don’t want to step on a trap.”