All they knew how to say was "you're wrong."

Post date: May 11, 2012 6:19:11 AM

Democracy doesn't work when all someone knows how to say is "you're wrong."

Democracy (and really, any kind of meaningful dialogue) works when you say something and I listen to you. I ask questions to be sure I know what you mean. If I have a different perspective, I bring that into the conversation and you listen to it and think about it. You ask questions to be sure you know what I mean. We repeat the process, each time remembering what was said before and adding to it. Each time around, we get a better picture of the reality that we can't perceive in isolation.

But that's not what happens when people or organizations need to be "right," and are sure they are--despite any confusing evidence that might come up to the contrary. They get their story straight before the meet with their "opponents," and they stick to it. No fast-talking will fool them.

In the controversy of how to deal with the killing of dogs by body-gripping traps, those who've rehearsed their trappers-associations' scripts are quick with their responses: the only problem is with irresponsible dog owners, end of subject. Maybe some advice to the city folks to stay home and leave the open spaces to sportsmen--who, after all, are the only ones who understand them, use them, and support them.

No listening, no dialogue, no democracy.

In his March 2012 letter (attached below) to the Minnesota Trappers Association (MTA), Association President Shawn Johnson dismissed the "impracticability" of popular Minnesota Legislation (SF 1736 / HF 2243) that had been proposed in February to protect dogs from injury and death in body-gripping traps. The legislation had been requested by thousands of signers of the Safe Public Lands petition, and was developed in consultation with dog owners, trappers and hunters who are also dog owners, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR). Its principal authors Senator Chuck Wiger and Representative John Ward had done their homework and arrived at three categories of safe uses for body-gripping traps that would not endanger dogs: 1) traps set five feet above the ground (where a dog would not normally jump or climb), 2) traps determined safe for dogs by the MN DNR, and 3) traps set underwater (where a dog would not normally hang its head while swimming).

Let's start with the second category: rules set by the MN DNR. It's pretty hard to argue that these would be "impracticable": after all, the MN DNR is staffed by experts in wildlife management who are charged to represent the interests of their hunter/trapper constituents fairly across the state. Furthermore, the legislation didn't tell MN DNR staff what to do; it simply left their way open to make fair rules for trapping. If Mr. Johnson called this "impracticable," he judged the MN DNR incapable of making fair and practical rules. If that were true, the MTA would need to take over the rulemaking process (which, come to think of it, is what the MTA seems to have accomplished in the 2011/2012 legislative session with its amendment to the Game & Fish Bill, HF 2171, Section 72).

It was with the first category (traps set five feet above the ground) that Mr. Johnson had his most direct complaint. The problem that he didn't mention was that some valuable furbearers (principally bobcats) are harder to catch at a height of five feet. The solutions he didn't mention included his own techniques (which he's published in at least one earlier letter) of snaring and foothold trapping at ground level, and other trappers' techniques for catching bobcats (described in the section on running pole sets in MTA trapper-education manual). So this complaint about traps set five feet above the ground was really about the unwillingness of some trappers (not Mr. Johnson) to switch to safer methods of trapping bobcats.

The third category, body-gripping traps set underwater, probably wasn't a concern for Mr. Johnson (but since there was so much else he wasn't disclosing, and since there's been no opportunity for asking questions, that's just this reader's guess about what he meant). Underwater, the largest body-gripping traps are the most effective, anyway, for trapping beavers and otters (with smaller sizes for muskrats). That's probably not a complaint.

Finally, Mr. Johnson picked another couple of objections out of the air: 1) that the popular legislation would prevent the normal use of snap-type mouse and rat traps for killing household pests and 2) that people and their legislators had expressed concern for the safety of their children. The reason the first one didn't hold air is that these trapping regulations only apply to protected species, not home pests. The second--come on now, really--a parent with a curious child is going to have concerns. Maybe parents only pictured broken wrists, but maybe mothers who are also nurses thought about the possible complications of a broken wrist, an extended lack of circulation, and the unpredictable results of a child's behavior in a panic. In a manner of speaking, Mr. Johnson tried to throw these complaints in along with the kitchen sink. We know better.

That's all that needs to be said about Mr. Johnson's complaints, his private meetings with "supportive elected officials", and his lack of confidence in the impartiality of the MN DNR.

Let's get back to the democratic process: it begins with you saying something and me listening to you. In the controversy of how to deal with the killing of dogs by body-gripping traps, that process was shut off by Mr. Johnson, the MTA, and their "supportive elected officials" before it could get started. All they knew how to do was say "you're wrong."