Trapping Laws in the United States – An Overview

Animal trapping is a practice that has been conducted even before history was recorded. For food, for defense and for commerce, people have relied on trapping to deal with animals in the environment around us, be it in the wild or close to our own places of habitation.

a Paiute deadfall trap
a Paiute deadfall trap

Although it’s seen as somewhat distasteful and rarely discussed today, trapping is alive and well throughout the United States.

Now as then, it’s also done for various reasons… However, there are many, many laws covering the practice of trapping, at the state and federal levels and sometimes even at the local level.

If you want to begin trapping for any purpose, you’ll need to understand these laws.

This article will serve as an overview of trapping laws in the US so you can better understand what to expect when you start looking into your own state’s laws. Grab your gear, and let’s get going.

Why Would Someone Need to Trap Animals at All?

If you’re unfamiliar with trapping, or if you just love animals, it’s easy to bristle at the notion of trapping.

What could be worse than luring some poor animal to its doom, either struck down by a lethal trap or held captive, suffering, terrified, waiting for someone to come along and dispatch it in a non-lethal trap?

Despite this sentimentality, trapping has always been extremely important historically, and it remains important today.

Trapping is the primary method by which nuisance animals are eliminated or relocated, and it is still commercially important for the production of fur, various glandular products, physical specimens, and a lot more.

Although tightly regulated, trapping is a crucially important skill that has until recently been in danger of dying out.

A surge of interest in self-sufficiency and personal preparedness has seen a corresponding surge in education concerning trapping, both the practical application and the ethics of it.

Whether you want to start a new business of some kind, to be better prepared to provide food for your family, or just get rid of troublesome animals tearing up your property, trapping is a great skill to know.

Trapping Laws Vary Considerably from State to State

As you should have expected by now, trapping laws are only broadly similar throughout the United States. As it turns out, each and every state has its own take on the practice and its own requirements for citizens who would engage in it.

In some states, trapping any kind of animal larger than a mouse in your own home might require substantial education, licensure, bonding and more.

In other states, trapping is far less regulated, and only the disposition of commercial fur trappers or professional pest controllers could be regulated at all.

Accordingly, all of the information presented in this overview should serve only to ground you concerning the most common concepts.

It is up to you to look up, learn, and understand your state’s regulations concerning trapping, whether or not it occurs on your own property and whatever purpose it is for.

Failing to do this can result in substantial fines and criminal charges.

Non-Residents May Face More Restrictions

It should also be pointed out that a little less than half the states in the US have additional stipulations or requirements for non-residents, whether or not they are US citizens.

This means that you can’t just head into a trapping-friendly state and set up shop, necessarily!

Make sure you read the fine print of the statutes, especially if you’re heading into another state to do your work.

Trap Types are Strictly Regulated in Each State

Historical trackers and trappers today rely on a wide variety of trap types, although four are the most common and the most widely used. They are the body grip or conibear trap, the foothold trap, the snare, and the cage or box trap.

But not all states allow all traps to be used for every purpose, or even at all, and the conibear trap in particular is among the most restricted.

Depending on what type of animal you are after and the application, restrictions on the usage of a given trap type might severely limit your options or complicate your approach to trapping.

You want to look up the allowed traps in your state before you invest in expensive equipment.

Trap Placement is Also Regulated

Beyond merely restricting the type of trap as a class, the placement of any given trap is further restricted in some states.

For instance, you might be able to place a body grip trap on land, known as dryland in trapping, but not use it in wetlands or submerged, known as a water set.

There are Also Federal Laws Affecting Trapping

Although there are no overarching federal laws governing trapping on your own property, federal laws nonetheless interfere with or complicate trapping in certain instances.

Specifically, you can be held responsible if you’re trapping near any wildlife refuges for federally protected species, and some species of animal, namely bald eagles, may never be trapped at all.

Federal trapping laws might not be a factor for you, but it’s best to familiarize yourself with them to be sure. Ignorance is no excuse no matter why you are trapping!

Licensure is Required for Fur Trapping or Pest Removal in Many States

For professional fur trappers, licensure is required in more than half the states in the US.

Commercial fur trappers are subjected to significantly more oversight and requirements for submitting kills and sometimes specimens in the form of teeth from collected animals.

Similarly, if you want to engage in trapping for animal control or pest removal, you might not be able to simply hang out your shingle in some states until you complete the necessary education and licensing requirements, beyond what is required to operate a business normally.

Generally, You Can Trap Most Nuisance Animals on Your Own Property

Luckily, in most states, it is completely legal to trap what is known as nuisance animals as long as they are on your property, or directly damaging your property if on a neighboring property so long as you have the permission of the property owner.

This sometimes includes various animal species like skunks, raccoons, beavers, and foxes that might otherwise be protected from trapping elsewhere.

So if you have raccoons, possums, foxes, rabbits or any other animal that’s terrorizing or taking your livestock, tearing up crops, infiltrating your house, or otherwise being a nuisance it is likely that, at least at some time during the year, you’ll be able to eliminate them one way or the other.

But, it’s crucially important that you check your local laws and your state laws when it comes to disposal of the animal: you might be able to kill, capture, or both.

Note that in some states, and particularly in very liberal states or “green” municipalities, you might have to resort to the services of a licensed animal control professional for assistance.

Examples of State Law Interactions

The laws of your state might make for pretty interesting situations when it comes to the permissiveness of trapping.

One should not assume that something that is legal and indeed common in most states is legal in your state. Some examples below…

Looking at Alabama for instance, it’s actually possible to get a permit to trap wildlife that would otherwise be protected by the state if that wildlife is causing direct damage to crops, damage to human habitation or any concern for human life or well-being.

Lacking a permit, the state allows for a bag limit of one nuisance animal per known incident caused.

Basically, many animals that otherwise enjoy state protection may be trapped en masse if you have a permit, or taken singly according to the damage they cause otherwise.

In Alaska, of all places, squirrels which are typified as nuisance animals almost everywhere are considered fur animals, and though they may be trapped with no limit on number a hunting or trapping license is still required to trap them.

Folks pretty much everywhere consider squirrels, however cute they are, as merely rats with furry tails, but Alaska takes a different view entirely.

Florida is a study in contrasts, with any person that owns property being legally authorized to take nuisance wildlife or authorize another person to take care of the nuisance wildlife on their behalf so long as it is done on their property, with bats as the notable exception.

However, Florida forbids the use of foothold and bodyhold traps entirely.

Iowa is significantly more strict than other states, requiring a wildlife animal control permit to take any wildlife causing any damage whatsoever when it is done outside of the prescribed hunting and trapping seasons. Louisiana is identical in this regard.

Kentucky is particularly permissive when it comes to nuisance wildlife, allowing property owners or tenants to trap any nuisance wildlife on their property by any means that follows other regulations in the state.

Maryland is somewhat peculiar, mandating that any homeowner obtain a free landowner trapping permit to trap any damage-causing wildlife on their property if it is to take place outside of the open trapping season.

Montana gives landowners broad latitude for commercial endeavor, on the other hand, permitting them to trap any furbearing animal on private property at any time as long as they obtain a permit to do so.

For those with large parcels, this means you can engage in trapping year-round if you want to.

These are just a few examples, and obviously there are many more with each state being more or less intrusive, and more or less insistent on permitting and licensure.

There are Laws Covering Relocation for Catch-and-Release

You might think to avoid all of these issues simply by using humane, live-catch cage or box traps. Good idea, and good for you if you’re dealing with a nuisance animal!

However, it’s not enough to just take the animal somewhere far from your home before turning it loose.

In virtually every state, you cannot release the animal on someone else’s private property, and there might be regulations on how far you’re legally allowed to transport the animal prior to releasing it.

No good deed goes unpunished right? In seriousness, make sure you look up the relevant laws for catch and release prior to relocating the pest that has been plaguing you…

Some Animals are Always Off-Limits

It should also be noted that there are many animal species that are pretty much always off-limits when it comes to trapping, except by duly appointed authorities and agencies, or in the most unlikely circumstances.

This also means that you’ll need to ensure you do everything that you can to avoid these animals falling prey to your traps whatever your quarry is.

A few examples are:

  • marine mammals, including seals, walruses and sea lions,
  • any animal on the endangered species list like gray wolves, red wolves and so forth,
  • any migratory birds which are already protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and includes such species as peregrines, bald eagles,
  • and most waterfowl species and marine reptiles.

And remember, this list is not comprehensive! There are many more that might be protected at the federal or the state level, and it is up to you to determine which ones are fair game and which ones are not.

Seasons Might Restrict When You Can Trap at All

Just like hunting, many states will institute seasons for trapping. You’ll have a certain amount of time to put out and monitor your traps depending on what species of animal you are after.

After that, you have to take up your traps and cannot engage in trapping except as what is allowed by law, usually for the removal of nuisance or threatening animals.

They may also be stipulations on how often you must check your traps during the season.

For foothold traps and body hold traps this is usually once a day, the cage traps and box traps might be permitted to go slightly longer between checks.

Failing to check on your traps, if you are caught, can see your license revoked and fines leveled, or potentially criminal charges.

And again, you will need a permit or license to engage in trapping during the season in most states where seasons are instituted for certain animals, and especially furbearing animals.

You Can be Held Legally Responsible If Your Trap Kills or Maims a Pet or Non-targeted Species

This should go without saying, but remember that whatever kind of trap you are saying, for whatever kind of animal, for any purpose and where so ever you might do it you are responsible for every animal that gets caught in that trap. An animal, or potentially a person!

You should only place a trap and especially a lethal trap with maximum discretion to prevent non-targeted animals and pets in particular from blundering into it.

Remember that all sorts of animals are attracted to common bait… If you are placing traps in out-of-the-way locations, take care to mark them in some way so that people who might be traveling through the area will notice and avoid the trap.

You can risk criminal and civil charges if your trap injures or kills a non-targeted animal, or an otherwise legal species out of season.

Trapping Education is Always a Good Idea, and May be a Prerequisite for Licensure

The good news is that you don’t have to figure all of this stuff out on your own or piecemeal.

There are state- and national-level groups that provide certified education that can help you get your permit or license, and it is required in some states.

The National Trappers Association is one well-known organization, and many states have their own courses for best practices typically sponsored by the Fish and Wildlife Commissions or Department of Natural Resources.

Either of these agencies can point you in the right direction for education and training, and don’t be afraid to ask around at your local hunting or trapping supply store for more good recommendations.

Contact Your State FWC for Up-to-Date Info

Unfortunately, all of the laws concerning trapping tend to change more quickly than other laws related to sport, conservation, and animal control.

Trapping, and especially trapping of so-called charismatic species, tends to draw far more attention and activism from the general public, and politicians are ever eager to curry favor especially for niche interests like trapping that won’t affect their own bottom line.

Accordingly, you must stay on top of changes to the law and proposed changes that might be coming down the pipe.

The very best source for this information at the state and local level is your state’s own wildlife division, wherever it is headquartered.

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