Mary Katherine Ray came across this coyote caught in a steel-jaw trap while hiking in New Mexico. When she returned with a warden the next day to rescue it, the coyote had wrung off its foot to escape. Credit: Mary Katherine Ray

Warning: This article contains graphic photos of animals injured in traps.

The traps are set near hiking trails, on public land, even in wildlife refuges.

Their purpose: to capture bobcats and other wild animals whose pelts are exported to China, Russia, Canada and other countries.

Steel-jaw traps, though, don’t simply catch animals, as a recent Reveal investigation showed. They often hurt them, sometimes severely. They also injure and kill scores of species by mistake, from mountain lions to bald eagles and family pets.

As the carnage grows, trap reform efforts are stirring in Congress, which has not held hearings on trapping in more than 30 years, and more than a half-dozen states.

“These bone-crushing devices are inherently indiscriminate and inhumane,” Collin Wolff, a New Mexico veterinarian, wrote in a letter to Congress last month. “There have been an exasperatingly large number of reports of trap-related injuries to non-target animals, including cats, dogs, and humans.”

He added: “All too commonly these injuries occur on public lands.”

Defenders say that traps are no more cruel than nature and that opposition to them is limited.

“That’s a small portion of the people,” said Larry Gogert, a trapper in Nevada. “It’s big-city people or Hollywood people. It’s not the rural people. Almost all of them say trapping is fine.”

Here’s a rundown of the current proposals and ideas that could reduce the suffering:

Ban trapping on wildlife refuges

More than 80 nations have banned steel-jaw traps. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., is the author of a bill that would bar them on national wildlife refuges.

“Traps are not just cruel, but they are absolutely indiscriminate,” Booker said last month at a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

A bald eagle, America’s national bird, is caught in a steel-jaw trap along a hiking trail near Juneau, Alaska, in December 2014. It later was euthanized.Credit: Katt Turley Credit: Katt Turley

No database tracks the collateral damage on refuges. But records obtained by Reveal show many animals have been caught by mistake, including bald eagles, river otters, raccoons, ducks, geese, dogs, cats, rabbits, turtles, squirrels and opossums.

Committee Chairman Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has drafted an amendment that would require reporting of wildlife killed by mistake on refuges. Booker called that “a step in the right direction.”

“Dear God, I hope we can continue to work together to address what I think is a level of cruelty that is unbecoming of the greatness of our nation,” Booker said.

Prohibit traps on public land

Seven states have banned or restricted traps. Now, some are trying to eliminate them from public lands out West, too.

“Public lands belong to everyone,” said Mary Katherine Ray, a volunteer for Trap Free New Mexico, which supports such a ban. “These are the public’s wildlife, and they are selling them on the global market.”

Mary Katherine Ray came across this coyote caught in a steel-jaw trap while hiking in New Mexico. When she returned with a warden the next day to rescue it, the coyote had wrung off its foot to escape.Credit: Mary Katherine Ray Credit: Mary Katherine Ray

Trappers say the land belongs to them, too, and the bobcats and other species they target are not at risk. That’s true. But trapping also can deplete or even wipe out bobcats in some places and runs the risk of capturing rare and endangered species by mistake.

Others wildlife advocates, including Wyoming Untrapped, are working to restrict trapping along hiking trails on public land. Some want them banned everywhere, including Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote in California.

“We are so far behind the rest of the world,” she said. “How is that more than 80 countries have banned the leg-hold trap, yet the U.S. is still using them?”

Mandatory 24-hour trap checks

Biologists who set traps for research check them at least once a day. But in at least seven Western states, trappers are not required to check their traps daily, leaving animals to starve or freeze or even wring off their own paws.

Steel-jaw traps can inflict serious injuries to wildlife. This mountain lion was maimed by a trap set to catch bobcats in Nevada.Credit: Nevada Department of Wildlife Credit: Nevada Department of Wildlife

In Nevada, where traps can be left untended for 96 hours, authorities cited the president of the Nevada Trappers Association in 2014 for not checking his traps for 10 days.

“The longer that animal is in a trap, the more likely you have foot injury, shoulder sprains, vascular damage, neural damage,” said Carter Niemeyer, a retired wildlife biologist who believes traps should be checked daily.

High-tech alerts and monitoring

Some scientists also put sensors on traps to signal when an animal has been caught, allowing them to respond quickly. If it works for researchers, they wonder, why not trappers?

Trappers, though, say more frequent checks would be impractical in the West, where some trappers – known as longliners – set trap lines across hundreds of miles of rugged terrain.

Technology also could help wardens enforce the law.

“What if we required trappers to check online and say where they were going?” said Robert Crabtree, founder of the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center in Montana. “Even better, have them tracked by GPS. They could log in at their trap line to record the date and location.”

National standards for traps

A national trap-testing program has found some traps are more merciful than others. The program, funded with public money, also has developed best management practices to make trapping safer.

But those practices are recommendations, not regulations. And in many states, traps that inflict serious injury to animals remain legal.

“They are not enforceable,” said Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C. “On their face, they’re a farce.”

But Bryant White, who manages the testing program for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, said the practices have helped educate trappers and sow demand for more humane traps.

Mandatory trapper education

Hunters have to take a class to get a license. But in several states, trappers don’t.

Pete Bradley, a retired large-carnivore biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, wants that to change. He’s documented gruesome injuries to mountain lions caught by mistake in traps and believes a well-educated trapper will catch far fewer animals by mistake.

“The standards for education need to be ramped up if the activity is going to survive,” he said.

Mandatory reporting of dogs killed

In most states, trappers are not required to report dogs killed by mistake. In Minnesota, John Reynolds – whose dog was killed in a body-grip trap in 2011 – believes they should.

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Body-grip traps are designed to be lethal but sometimes injure and cripple instead. This gash was inflicted on Kobe, a 7-year-old husky, as he struggled to pull his head out of one of these traps. Credit: Courtesy of the Friends of Animals Humane Society

“Most of the dogs that are killed are probably just thrown out in the woods,” said Reynolds, who has formed a group – Dog Lovers 4 Safe Trapping MN – to push for reform.

Body grips are designed to kill quickly by crushing an animal’s neck vertebrae. In some cases, though, they cripple instead. Steel-jaw traps, which hold animals alive by the foot, also can maim and kill if not checked often enough.

“If I were to recommend anything to people around the country, it’s to get a mandatory reporting system in place with penalties for not reporting,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds is not just a concerned pet owner. He is also a trapper. “There is never an instance where you have to risk killing somebody’s dog in a trap,” he said.

He is calling for restrictions on how and where body grips are set and how often they are checked. In Minnesota, trappers can take three days – plenty of time to inflict gruesome injuries to animals not killed outright.

That includes Kobe, a husky caught in a body-grip trap near Cloquet.

“Both eyes were infected. Both sides of his face were torn open. And he lost hearing in one ear. And they had to remove both eyes.

“More than likely, it’s because of that three-day check,” Reynolds said. “If the trapper had come the next day, he might have been able to release him without all that damage.”

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Tom Knudson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @tomsplace.

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Tom Knudson is a reporter for Reveal, covering the environment. He is the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a 2004 award for global environmental reporting from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Reuters. Over the years, he has reported on a wide range of subjects, including the abuse of migrant forest workers in the American West, overfishing in Mexico's Sea of Cortez and the environmental degradation of California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. Knudson is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.