By SUSAN RUSSELL
Published: April 27, 1986, New York Times
UNTIL recently, public reaction to New Jersey's leghold-trap ban focused on the merits of the statute.
After a decade of bitter confrontation, the Legislature responded to overwhelming public pressure and enacted the strongest law in the nation.
Since Governor Kean signed the bill into law, attention has shifted toward myriad attempts - in the courts, the Legislature and bureaucracy - to systematically dismantle the law, thus permitting fur-trade interests to conduct business as usual. Moreover, the situation has brought to light the disproportionate influence of the minority fur trade in wildlife policies at public expense.
Significantly, recent actions have confirmed alarming activity within the state agency entrusted with protecting wildlife for all citizens. This agency, the Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, openly labors to overturn public mandates and protect the interest of the fur industry.
The Legislature received more mail against leghold traps than on any other issue. The public insistence on P.L. 1984, C. 37, which went into effect last October, had nothing to do with money, taxes or power; rather, it was a manifestation of growing national concern about the private exploitation of public wildlife.
According to the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach Inc., three-quarters of the public firmly opposes killing wildlife for fur. That concern became a potent political force. Housewives, lawyers, teachers, labor leaders and schoolchildren contributed time and money to ban leghold traps. The enactment of the law proved that at least some of the time, when people care deeply enough, they can surmount a commercial lobby that too frequently controls the Legislature and certain bureaucracies.
Citizens followed due process, and the victory should stand.
Instead, last year the New Jersey Fish and Game Council, a politically appointed body of 11 members that represents hunters and trappers and exercises enormous control over the state's wildlife policies, tried to compromise the law by permitting use of so-called padded steel-jaw leghold traps.
Behind this unsuccessful maneuver were the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America, a group comprising the American Fur Industry and the Woodstream Corporation, and the state's Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, which derives 80 percent of its budget, including salaries, from hunting-, trapping- and fishing-license revenues. The division publicly admitted that it tried to legalize legholds - despite a law - based only upon the opinion of the Wildlife Legislative Fund.
This attempt was made after the fur lobby twice failed to get the Legislature to amend the leghold-trap legislation to permit use of ''padded'' traps. Public reaction was quick and loud; the Attorney General wrote the Fish and Game Council that such a move would clearly violate the law.
Having failed, the fur trade sued in Salem County - the heart of trapper country - to overturn the law and gain use of ''padded'' traps and possession of the devices. The trial is to begin this spring.
Represented by the Princeton firm of Jamieson, Moore, Peskin and Spicer, P.C., Friends of Animals has intervened in the case to protect the statute.
Trappers and fur groups are suing the same Fish and Game Council that fought the ban. In effect, they are suing themselves. The council worked with the fur industry to legalize the outlawed trap.
Jim Furlong, a trapper and longtime official of the South Jersey Furtakers, as well as a consort of Woodstream and the American Fur Industry, sits on the council he is suing. The Game Council and the Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife are prime witnesses for the trappers' case.
Russell A. Cookingham, director of the Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, is listed as the 1985 president of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, an official-sounding lobby organization that represents Woodstream, the American Fur Industry, the commercial National Trappers Association and several munitions makers. Most of the ''case'' for legholds was choreographed by this trade organization, but will be presented in the name of the ''State of New Jersey.''
Division officials, who in the name of the state lobbied against banning leghold traps and who are listed as serving as trappers' witnesses, are themselves commercial trappers who use the leghold for personal gain.
Meanwhile, the same fur trade coalition is trying a rear-guard action in the Legislature. S. 294, sponsored by Senator Wayne Dumont Jr., Republican of the 24th District (parts of Sussex and Warren Counties), would eviscerate the statute by removing the critical ban on possession and permitting hard-core trappers to keep their leghold traps - in some cases, hundreds of devices - for purported ''decorative and collection'' purposes.
Astonishingly, the amendment was ramrodded through the Senate on March 3 and goes to the Assembly, then to Governor Kean.
The bans on possession and sale are the very heart of the statute. Since New Jersey trappers have been shown to flout existing laws banning only ''use'' of the devices, and since trapping is a surreptitious activity impossible to police, only bans on possession and sale are enforceable.
A 1978 report issued by the pro-trapping Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife noted that trappers in Class I and II Counties admitted to breaking the ban in those counties and to using a shocking 12,227 leghold traps, despite the law. The division wrote: ''In Class I and II Counties where longhair (fox, raccoon) furbearers are available in upland areas open to trapping, compliance with the ban on leghold traps is low.''
Despite this, the division saw no reason to increase enforcement attempts. The role of this biased agency in enforcing a law that it holds in contempt is yet another compelling reason necessitating bans on possession.
When there is a commercial market, and the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service states that trapping is strictly commercial, ruthless decimation of public wildlife continues despite laws and requires proscription, such as possession, that are enforceable.
The Fish and Wildlife Service reports that half the wildlife killed in the United States is taken illegally. Top officials of the New Jersey Trappers Association, requesting leghold traps for decorating homes, are on record as repeated violators of ''game'' laws. It is these hard-core trappers who want to retain leghold traps for ''decorative'' purposes.
Yale University's ''Policy Implications of National Study of American Attitudes Toward Animals'' reported:
Trappers seemed quite unconcerned about issues involving the protection and welfare of animals . . . more than any other group, trappers consistently opposed efforts to minimize cruelty to animals or depredations to wildlife and wilderness environments. And
This group seems to exercise little restraint or control in its exploitation of wildlife or natural resources.
State wildlife enforcement officers cannot begin to monitor the placement of an estimated 220,000 traps, 77,000 of which are legholds, set in our private and public woods, meadows, fields, marshes, streams and other waterways.
New Jersey is divided into three wildlife enforcement districts, each with 12 to 14 officers at full strength. One officer, on a 9-to-5 schedule, is responsible for 230 square miles. Aside from enforcing trapping laws, each is assigned about eight other tasks, including water-pollution investigation.
Trapper legislators' justifications for ''possession'' are, as ever, pretextual. Both Senators Dumont and Raymond J. Zane, Democrat of the Third District (Salem County and parts of Cumberland and Gloucester Counties), say that S. 294 is ''only fair'' because P.L. 1984, C. 37 requires ''trappers to have these devices confiscated without compensation.''
As their actions have shown, trappers want not compensation, but to keep the traps to continue making money from pelts illegally obtained. On March 3, Senator Carmen A. Orechio, Democrat of the 30th District (parts of Essex County), challenged Senator Zane to co-sponsor a bill to provide compensation, rather than giving trappers possession of the traps. Senator Zane declined.
Mr. Orechio further pointed out that both the Legislature and humane groups had agreed to compensate trappers, if only to get the traps out of the woods, and that Senator Zane used that amendment as a political maneuver to block passage of the entire bill.
Given such episodes, the Legislature rejected Senator Zane's subsequent attempt to block the entire law via requests for compensation not seriously meant. The fur trade publication ''Fur Age Weekly'' said compensation was ''not really important'' and commended Senator Zane for derailing the bill.
Since enactment of P.L. 1984, C. 37, neither Senator Zane nor Senator Dumont has in any manner tried to legislate compensation. Rather, they seek possession for trappers. Publicly, Mr. Zane declared that Senator Orechio's offered amendements to render ''collected and decorative'' traps inoperable made him ''furious.''
Assemblyman D. Bennett Mazur, Democrat of the 37th District (Bergen County), who sponsored the bill in the lower house, said that S. 294 ''eviscerates'' the law.
And Assemblyman Alan J. Karcher, Democrat of the 19th District (Middlesex County), another original co-sponsor, said that ''granting possession to trappers clearly goes against our original intention; this emasculates the law before it has even had a chance to go into effect.''
S. 294 fools nobody. Yet insiders say that because Mr. Dumont is a Republican, it may pass the Assembly.
It is up to Governor Kean, a vocal and strong supporter of banning the cruelty of leghold traps, to veto S. 294 and other like measures to ''emasculate'' P.L. 1984, C. 37 and permit business as usual.
Perhaps more is at stake than trap jaws cutting into bone. When people work for a law, they have every right to expect it to remain intact and not lose it in back rooms.
The Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife's role as the ''state'' fools no one, either. This part of the administration should not be allowed to sue itself and to aid the fur industry at the expense of the public.
In 1842, the United States Supreme Court ruled that wildlife belonged to all people, the private property of no individual. It is time to ''dismantle'' not the leghold law, but the bureaucracy politically and financially dependent upon the kill of public animals for commerce. The agency should be financed not by exploiters, but by general revenues, forcing, accordingly, accountability to all citizens.
The interests of 7.5 million citizens are being thwarted to serve 2,500 trappers and a handful of out-of-state profiteers.
Our State Government clearly must not continue acting as prime lobbyist for merchants. It is past time the public reclaim its rights to wildlife. Prevalent attitudes against ruthless destruction of wild species for trade should prevail; these animals truly belong to us all.
SUSAN RUSSELL IS VICE PRESIDENT OF FRIENDS OF ANIMALS, A NEPTUNE-BASED ORGANIZATION.