If you’ve ever come across a squirrel stuck in a trap or enclosure, you may have wondered if freeing it would get you in legal trouble. This common question often arises from an ethical dilemma – while freeing the squirrel seems like the humane thing to do, laws around wildlife handling can be complex and carry severe penalties if broken.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk through the reasons behind squirrel trapping regulations and explain exactly why releasing trapped squirrels is illegal in most cases.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: It is generally illegal to release trapped squirrels because they are often considered nuisance animals and disturbing traps set by licensed trappers or wildlife officials can carry heavy fines or jail time.

Background on Squirrel Population Management

Squirrels may seem cute and harmless, but an overabundance of these furry critters can wreak havoc on property, agriculture, and native ecosystems. Here’s some background on why wildlife authorities regulate squirrel populations through carefully managed hunting and trapping programs.

Overpopulation and Damage Concerns

Squirrels are extremely adaptable and can thrive in urban and rural settings. As their numbers grow unchecked, squirrels compete with native wildlife for food and habitat. They ravage gardens, strip tree bark, chew wires, contaminate food supplies, and their burrowing damages infrastructure.

It’s estimated that squirrels cause over $100 million in property damage each year in the US alone!

Role of Hunting and Trapping

Regulated hunting and trapping helps keep squirrel populations at healthy levels. Seasonal hunts thin overly dense concentrations of squirrels in problem areas. Trapping by licensed specialists also removes destructive squirrels from neighborhoods and prevents recolonization.

For example, Detroit saw a 75% reduction in nuisance squirrel complaints after starting an intensive trapping program in 2016.

Licensing System for Trappers

Trappers must complete accredited courses and pass exams to obtain licenses. This ensures they use humane methods and follow all regulations regarding trap placement, checking frequency, non-target species, etc.

Licensed trappers specialize in removing the specific animals causing damage, without harming local ecosystems. Turning squirrels loose after capturing them is illegal because it undermines population management efforts.

Trapping Regulations and Protections

Requirement to Check and Maintain Traps

In most states, laws require that all traps, snares and cable restraints be checked and maintained at least once every calendar day. This is to help prevent unnecessary suffering of any animals that may become caught. Trappers are obligated to humanely dispatch or release any trapped animals.

Neglecting trap checks can result in charges of animal cruelty.

For example, in Wisconsin, regulations state that each trap, snare and cable restraint must be personally checked by the individual setting them no less than once during each calendar day. In Alaska, trappers must check foothold traps at least once every 72 hours.

Some other states simply specify trap checks must be done “regularly” or “frequently.”

Tampering with Traps Prohibited

It is generally illegal for unauthorized persons to disturb or tamper with lawfully set traps. This is to protect trappers’ personal property and preserve their lawful right to harvest furbearing animals.

Specific laws vary by state, but most impose penalties on anyone who damages, disturbs or removes traps without permission.

For instance, in Montana it is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine to remove or disturb the traps of another person. Meanwhile in Texas, it is a Class C misdemeanor to tamper with lawfully placed traps without the owner’s consent.

Some states like Wisconsin specifically prohibit opening such traps and freeing caught animals.

Fines and Penalties for Trap Disturbance

Penalties for unlawfully tampering with traps, snares or cable restraints typically include criminal fines and even potential jail time in some areas. Exact penalties vary significantly across the U.S. but may include:

  • Civil fines up to $5,000 in Idaho
  • Up to 90 days in jail plus fines in Kansas
  • Misdemeanor with fines up to $1,500 in Wyoming
  • Up to 1 year in jail and $3,000 fine in Louisiana

In addition to fines and jail time, states may revoke hunting/trapping privileges for 1-5 years. Some also require violators to pay restitution to the trap owner for any damage caused. Bottom line – it’s wise to avoid tampering with any traps you may encounter to avoid facing serious legal consequences.

Disease Risks of Relocating Wildlife

Spread of Rabies

Rabies is one of the most dangerous viral diseases that can spread between wildlife, pets, and humans through saliva from bites. Squirrels and other rodents are known carriers of rabies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 90% of reported rabies cases in wild animals in the United States occur among bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes.

However, squirrels accounted for over 5% of rabies cases in wildlife. Relocating squirrels increases the risk of spreading rabies to new areas if the animals are infected.

If an infected squirrel bites or scratches a person, the rabies virus can be transmitted. Rabies has a mortality rate of nearly 100% in humans if postexposure prophylaxis is not administered. That is why relocating potentially rabid squirrels to neighborhoods or parks puts human health at serious risk.

All animal bites should be taken seriously and reported to authorities to test for rabies.

Introduction of Parasites and Viruses

In addition to rabies, squirrels may carry parasites like ticks, fleas, mites, and intestinal worms. They can also carry viruses like the squirrel fibromatosis virus. When relocating squirrels, people risk introducing these parasites and viruses to new environments.

A 2020 study published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases found parasitic nematodes in 47% of fox squirrels sampled in Illinois. Relocated squirrels may spread parasites to pets or native wildlife in release areas.

For example, squirrels infected with the fibromatosis virus and released into a new area could spread it to other rodents. The viruses and parasites squirrels host often do not cause serious illness in them but can be very pathogenic in other species.

That makes haphazard relocation irresponsible from a wildlife disease standpoint.

Monitoring Wildlife Health and Movements

Responsible wildlife management requires understanding animal movements, densities, and health. Relocating squirrels circumvents this process and disrupts ecological monitoring. When animals are free to move between habitats naturally, wildlife professionals can better track diseases and populations.

For example, public health officials monitor rabies spread by analyzing diagnostic testing data from animal specimens during rabies outbreaks.

Unregulated relocations allow potentially infected animals to be introduced almost anywhere without knowledge or consent from wildlife authorities. This poses risks to public health and ecological stability.

In fact, most states prohibit or strongly regulate the trapping and relocation of wildlife for these reasons. Following laws and ethical wildlife handling practices ultimately reduces risks to humans, pets, and local ecosystems.

When Can Trapped Squirrels Legally Be Released?

By Licensed Rehabilitators

In most states, the only individuals legally permitted to capture, temporarily hold, rehabilitate, and release squirrels are licensed wildlife rehabilitators. These professionals must complete training, pass exams, and obtain permits from their state’s department of natural resources or wildlife agency in order to assist injured, orphaned, or distressed squirrels.

According to the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, there are around 15,000 licensed rehabbers in the U.S. and Canada.

Even licensed rehabilitators cannot simply release squirrels wherever they want. They must bring the animals to appropriate habitats and locations where their survival chances are strong. For example, gray squirrels in one county may not thrive if released in another county miles away.

During Open Trapping Seasons

In the majority of states, gray and fox squirrels can legally be trapped during established seasons under regulations set by state wildlife agencies. The dates, bag limits, requirements around checking traps, and rules for releasing or dispatching trapped squirrels vary widely across different states and situations.

Here is a comparison:

State Open Squirrel Trapping Season Daily Bag Limit
Kansas Dec 1 – Feb 28 5
Kentucky Aug 15 – Feb 28 No limit
Louisiana First Sat of Oct for 124 days 10

As the data shows, regulations allow trappers in some states to legally release certain numbers of trapped squirrels back into the wild during open seasons. However, in certain locations and situations, immediate humane dispatch may be required instead.

With Permission from Trapper or Wildlife Officials

In limited scenarios, regular citizens (not just licensed rehabilitators) may be granted special one-time permission to free a trapped squirrel. This may occur if a property owner discovers a squirrel stuck in a trap they set themselves, or if a good samaritan comes across the distressed animal.

However, individuals should not take matters into their own hands without first contacting and receiving consent from the original trapper or local game warden. Unauthorized release of a legally trapped squirrel constitutes theft in some states like Arkansas. Check your local regulations!

Ethical Considerations Around Interfering

Weighing Welfare Against Ecosystem Impacts

When discovering trapped squirrels, our first instinct may be to free them as quickly as possible. However, we must thoughtfully weigh the squirrel’s welfare against potential ecosystem impacts of releasing non-native species.

Introducing new species can displace native ones and disrupt the local food chain.

For example, eastern gray squirrels, though cute and fuzzy to us, can aggressively compete with smaller native squirrels for food and territory if freed outside their natural range. This competition has contributed to western red squirrel population declines.

Seeking Alternatives Before Taking Action

Rather than immediately releasing trapped squirrels, concerned citizens can contact wildlife rehabilitators for advice. Rehabbers may determine healthy squirrels can stay at rehabilitation centers temporarily until being responsibly relocated to appropriate habitats.

If relocation is impossible, we must thoughtfully euthanize invasive species in the most humane ways possible. As difficult as this choice may be, ecosystem balance supports more life overall. However, rehabbers still aim to avoid euthanasia when alternatives exist.

Working to Reform Trapping Laws

Concerned citizens can also advocate for trapping policy reforms to prevent unnecessary squirrel suffering while allowing sustainable ecosystem management and hunting practices. Updated policies can mandate:

  • Frequent trap checks, ideally within 12-24 hours
  • Trap placement away from public parks and spaces
  • Mandatory reporting of non-target trapped species

Through cooperation between lawmakers, conservationists and hunters, trapping can be regulated to balance environmental welfare and human needs.


In summary, laws restricting the release of trapped squirrels aim to allow population control, prevent disruptions to licensed trapping activity, and reduce risks of disease transmission. However, there are select cases where legal release is possible, and ethical dilemmas around interfering highlight areas for continued improvement around wildlife welfare and management practices.

With this nuanced issue, maintaining squirrel populations while preventing needless suffering requires an approach balancing compassion, ecology, and respect for regulations.

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