Three decades ago, the state banned leghold traps to catch fur-bearing animals for their pelts. This month, at the urging of trappers, the state Department of Environmental Protection authorized the use of redesigned leghold traps. Apparently DEP bureaucrats didn't understand the ban and the reasons for it.

Previous leghold traps used spring-powered jaws to clamp down on the leg of an animal that steps on its trigger. The new leghold traps use spring-powered jaws to clamp down on the leg of an animal that reaches in and touches the trigger.

In 1984, the state wisely judged leghold traps to be inhumane, since they can break the animal's bones, prompt it to chew off its leg to escape and ensure suffering for hours or days until the trapper gets around to checking the trap. The ban was also motivated by dogs, cats and protected wildlife getting caught and harmed.

The DEP thinks these new traps are so much better because only animals with "some degree of manual dexterity for reaching" - such as raccoons and opossums - will try to get the bait and get caught.

Oh, and cats will still get caught, because they have that same dexterity for reaching. The DEP seems to think that if it's only cats that are injured, suffering and sometimes killed, that's OK. It's not.

The DEP's belief that only the wild animals legally targeted for their fur will be caught is also certainly wrong. Many animals will go into the trap, either following the scent of the bait or just checking the enclosure. Maybe even the Allegheny woodrat that other DEP bureaucrats are protecting as an endangered species.

If the DEP officials think they can make an end run around the leghold-trap ban by calling the new ones "enclosed foothold traps," they're probably sadly mistaken there as well. A previous Republican administration declared the ban unambiguous, absolute and not avoidable by technical modifications. A prominent Senate Democrat, Raymond Lesniak of Union, has prepared a concurrent resolution for the Legislature to block the DEP decision if need be.

This newspaper sympathizes with the state's 1,200 or so fur trappers, a quarter of whom live in South Jersey. They make an average of just $480 a year. Since the ban 31 years ago, they've had to use more cumbersome box traps to remain within the law. But they should just keep doing so if they wish to continue fur trapping.

At the state level, the DEP should rethink its position, or the Christie administration should void this bureaucratic attempt to defy the will of state residents and legislators. If they don't do the right thing, the Legislature should find that the DEP proposal violates the law and veto it.

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