The Legality of Animal Cage Traps in the United States: Catch-and-Release Laws Explained

If you're like most people, you probably enjoy spending time outdoors surrounded by beautiful wildlife. However, what happens when wild animals invade your property and start causing damage? You may find it necessary to trap and release the animal elsewhere. But is it legal to do so?

There is confusion surrounding the legality of using animal traps in the United States. This is largely due to the fact that regulations vary from state to state, and there are so many factors involved such as which animals can and cannot be trapped, which permits may or may not be required, and where to release the animal.

Every State's Animal Trapping Law is Different

Animal trapping is regulated by both state and federal law, so it's important to do your research. Therefore, before you start any animal trapping, you'll first want to visit and review two websites:

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - to find out more about federal regulations that apply to animal trapping.
  • Your own state's wildlife department - for instance, if trapping in New Jersey, you'll want to review the NJDEP website. Just do a quick Google search on "(your state)'s wildlife department."

Depending on the state, you may be required to have a permit or license to trap certain animals. There may also be restrictions on the type of traps you can use and how many animals you can trap at one time.

Off-Limit Animals for Trapping

It is illegal to trap certain types of animals no matter where you live. This includes federally protected species like bald eagles, American black bears, and gray wolves. It is also illegal to trap pets or domesticated animals.

With that said, you may be wondering about nuisance or pest animals such as squirrels, raccoons, and others. The legality of catching these types of animals varies state by state, which is why it is necessary to go online or call your state's wildlife department.

Where Can You Catch Animals Without A Permit?

If the animal is causing damage to your property, in most cases you do have the right to defend it, especially if it's a small rodent.

Check with Your State's Wildlife Department

In many states, you can trap nuisance or pest animals, such as squirrels, rabbits, rats, opossums, coyotes, foxes, skunks, and raccoons.
Some states have very liberal catch and release laws that will allow you to trap any of these mentioned animals without a permit.

Others are more restrictive and may only allow you to trap non-game mammals during hunting and trapping season, or only with a permit. States such as Alaska will require that you possess a permit while even handling squirrels. Others will require you to take an educational course and obtain a trapping license. You may be surprised to find that mundane animals could be illegal for trapping where you live.

For instance, consider a state such as New Jersey. They are very careful with raccoons due to the issue of rabies, and therefore they have laws in place regarding where and how you can release a trapped raccoon. There are so many nuances and exceptions from state to state, the safest route is to confirm with your state's wildlife department before trapping anything.

Where Is It Legal to Release the Animal?

Generally, you can legally catch and release animals in the following locations:

  • on your property
  • on public land that is open to hunting
  • on private land with the permission of the owner

You cannot release the animal onto private land without permission from the owner, including all federal, state, or municipal land. The animal should be released as close to its original site as possible, ideally within only a five-mile radius, and never across state lines. This is important as not to disrupt the balance of the local ecosystem, and also so that it is guaranteed the animal can still access its food source.

Other Options for Releasing Trapped Animals

In some cases, you may find it necessary to release an animal that is injured or sick. In these instances, you should contact a local wildlife rehabilitator before releasing the animal. Wildlife rehabilitators are licensed by the state and are experts in caring for injured or orphaned wild animals. They will provide you with the best advice on how to care for the animal and will also release it back into the wild when it is healthy.

What If You Accidentally Trap An Endangered or Restricted Species?

If you accidentally trap an endangered or restricted species, you are required to release it immediately. Technically, you are also required to report the incident to your state's wildlife department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Taking, possessing, transporting, selling, or trading an endangered or restricted animal is a federal crime punishable by fines and imprisonment.

Use Caution and Be Responsible

In the United States, you are expected to take every measure possible to prevent the accidental capture of an endangered species. This means setting up the trap in a way that only encourages your target species to enter, by using the correct bait and checking your traps frequently.

Setting the trap in a safe location is also imperative. Make sure it is not set in an environment where endangered species frequent. If possible, make sure the food sources in the environment are of no interest to restricted species. Or, make sure that the trap is well-hidden and could only be tracked by the targeted species.

When in Doubt...

In conclusion, while there are some restrictions on where and when you can trap nuisance or pest animals, it is generally legal to do so in the United States. Always check with your state's wildlife department before setting any traps, and be sure to release the animal back into its natural habitat as close to its original location as possible.

Remember that there may be restrictions on which animals you can catch and release, so do your research before you start trapping!

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