Vermont furbearer biologist Chris Bernier collecting age and sex data from muskrat pelts at the 2011 Vermont Trappers Auction.
Along the apple’s aged bole, fall rains had tamped the burst of feathers between flattened riparian grass, but the white dots on black were unmistakable.
“Downy,” my pop said, standing in the stream, staring at what was left of the woodpecker. “Maybe a hairy. Sharp-shinned hawk probably got him on its way south.”
Frost gingered the limbs all around, our breath matching it. Taking the trowel off his shoulder, my dad laid the mix of traps that were strung along the handle upon the bank, then slid a foothold free. The creek here was only yards wide, but floods exposed more of the apple’s roots every year. Beavers weren’t active now, but they had been recently. The upslope bank was studded with gray stubs of hard- and softwoods, marking the reciprocal attrition between the beaver and the dairyman who owns the land. Fifty yards upstream, the beaver’s dam was now just a tangle of sticks and mud, an indication that a bulldozer had been brought in to settle the most recent argument.
By tacit tradition we made the first set together, and this apple was a favorite – foothold trap in the water, bodygripper above. We’d taken three mink here, all in the last decade. Whether we were thrown out of the Garden or lost touch through evolution is irrelevant. Woods-speak has become a second tongue, and while it returned slow to my pop and me, over time we’ve affected functional fluency. More so than even most life, mink frequent confluences – water/land, woods/field, flat/incline – and like any animal, you’ll find them where their food is. Here, current and tree had routed a sizeable pool. Brook trout were down there, but dace and suckers, too, making slower, more catchable fare. Piles of pale sand fronted dark rocks in the depths, tipping crayfish hideaways, and the brush bulging both banks provided a haven for mice, voles, and cottontails.
My father took the foothold and I picked up a bodygripper, setting where schist slag forces bank travelers between rock and wood. My dad slipped his trap beneath water, fingers turning pink, wedging it between an overhung root and vertical clay. Milkweed flavored each bank, registered by itinerant monarchs that dust plant life like orange snow when laying eggs. My dad bent a stalk low to ensure a mink wouldn’t hop the trap. A pod split, littering the current with duck-down seeds, joining eddies in their lazy revolutions.
Prior to having my own kids, my father and I trapped Connecticut for 30 years, a habit I took to Alaska the decade I lived there. Family ties had something to do with it. Exercise, anticipation, and devotion to the outdoors, too. But the prime mover was deeper, inaccessible. I’m not alone in this loss for words. Scarcely a trapper can articulate with precision what sends them out every year.
“It’s part of their fabric,” Chris Bernier, a Vermont game biologist, said when I asked him. “It’s who they are.” In light of this silence, others have stepped in to define the roughly 13,000 trappers in New England and New York who will take to the field this fall. From the perspective of the fur industry, these men and women are wild fur farmers – a small piece of a $13 billion global fur trade. To biologists, they’re tools used to implement wildlife management goals. To animal rights advocates, they’re a relic of America’s barbaric past.
The anti-trapping positions are especially well known, passionate, and on the rise. Bob Noonan, a long-time trapper out of Canaan, Maine, was blunt. “Oh God. There are a lot people who put us below the filthiest criminals,” and while that’s likely hyperbole, he’s not far off.
Trapping’s past has served it poorly in the modern day. “You have to remember, from colonial times through about 1900 it was ‘finders keepers’ out there,” said Charlie Brown, Bernier’s Rhode Island counterpart. “No seasons, no laws, no ethics to speak of. Up until the 1960s, in fact, states had bounties on everything from foxes to raptors, and throughout much of American history, trapping played a large role in many species’ declines. This doesn’t happen anymore, but it certainly did.”
Modern-day trappers are working to reverse this rightfully scorned dowry, that of infrequently checked traps set any time of year, baited to catch anything that wandered by. So are biologists and state fish and game departments. Today, only abundant species can be legally trapped, and trapping is far more regulated than hunting or fishing. Biologists track not only total harvest but trapping effort, which over time gauges whether animal populations are increasing, decreasing, or stable. Otter, bobcat, and fisher carcasses are turned in for sexing, dietary data, and aging purposes, all useful in determining the species’ overall health. Fur dealers, moreover, are required to report their annual purchases, hindering out-of-season and over-limit harvesting. With fur an international commodity, broader global measures have been taken to thwart black marketers. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), for example, requires tagging specific species, usually predators whose numbers are scant even in high times.
Modern traps have also been redesigned to reduce suffering. The goal is to kill cleanly or hold humanely. “Animal welfare is a chief concern now,” said John DePue of Maine’s Fish and Game Department. “It’s hard to explain, but the bulk of trappers I know love the live animal as much as the dead one.” Over 150 trappers in 32 states have teamed up with biologists and veterinarians to develop Best Management Practice (BMP) guidelines that recommend which trap to use for which species. To date, over 1,000 full body necropsies have been performed to assess trapping injuries, and trapping equipment and techniques have been honed as a result. The study is ongoing. “BMPs can’t be understated in the effects they’ve had minimizing suffering,” Bernier stated, with DePue adding that apart from outliers, “most trappers follow them.”
However, many people, even when aware of such reforms, remain unmoved. In the same way that hunting accidents, while exceedingly rare, do happen, buttressing the vox populi that hunters are reckless ne’er-do-wells, pets and nontarget species are still caught in traps, sometimes with deadly consequences. That such misfortunes are usually caused by inexperienced teenage boys just starting out is immaterial – the fact is that BMPs are voluntary and not every trapper is a model of ethics. These exceptions fortify the public’s poor opinion of trapping, and in some parts of the country – especially where ballot referendums give urban voters numerical strength – trapping has been banned or severely restricted.
Antitrapping sentiment is particularly strong in southern New England. Since a 1996 referendum, Massachusetts only allows box and cage traps, eliminating the far more effective, cheaper, and, one could argue, more humane foothold and body-gripping devices. Rhode Islanders can only use body-gripping traps, and in Connecticut, a proposed ban that would have eliminated all trapping was narrowly defeated in the 2009 state legislature.
The Case for Management
Trapping in New England, then, offers a fine study of rural/urban/suburban fault lines. In keeping with a trend lasting millennia, the world is losing its rural population. Rather than working in nature, with all the interactions that entails, the vast majority of Americans today recreate in it intermittently, affecting how the country views the natural world. Those who work in nature approach it with a practical balance, as anyone weeding a garden can attest. Urban life, however, punctuated by the occasional hike, tends to subvert the pragmatism and morph the awe we all feel towards nature into ever-rarifying ether, venerating the natural world to the extent that it can scarcely be touched.
This makes things hard on wildlife managers, who need to reconcile an ecosystem’s biological carrying capacity – the number of wild animals an ecosystem can support – with the amorphous idea of “cultural carrying capacity” – the number of wild animals people will tolerate. That anti-trapping sentiment has become increasingly commonplace has certainly added to this challenge.
“Whether people understand it or not,” John DePue observed, “animals now exist in a heavily human-influenced world, and their habitat – or lack of it – reflects that. While nature would certainly take care of matters without our regulation, it would be messier and not without unintended consequences.”
With trapper numbers down, for instance, ground nesting birds can experience increased attrition through the rise of egg-poaching furbearers. A classic example of this unfolded in California in the late 1980s, when conservationists fought (and won) a protracted court battle with animal rights groups for the right to trap non-native red foxes, which were wiping out endangered bird species. One ecologist described the problem this way in an Audubon Magazine story on the subject: “If not checked soon, [red foxes] will account for more extinctions of bird species in the state than any other single factor in history.” Closer to home, DePue’s fieldwork in Maine has shown that fishers regularly kill the federally endangered lynx. “Without fishers being trapped, the increased numbers would certainly affect the lynx population,” said DePue.
In the absence of trapping, distemper, mange, and rabies, too, could potentially make more frequent and wrathful appearances in furbearer populations. “With trapping,” Bernier remarked, “vector species like raccoons, skunks, and foxes are managed at or below carrying capacity, lessening those diseases’ abilities to spread.”
While the positive biological effects trapping has on an ecosystem can be hard to quantify, trapping’s role in mitigating human/wildlife conflicts is not. Paul Rego, with Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection, said that 60 percent of the beavers trapped in the state are associated with property damage.
With decreased trapping, New England beaver populations have spiked in recent years, with subsequent rises in crop and road damage. “There are certainly ways around [using recreational trapping as a management tool],” Rego reiterated, “as you see in Massachusetts now, but trapping is the most efficient tool we have. It lets the resource be utilized for both fur and meat, it gets people outside, and animals that have to be killed anyway aren’t wasted by DOT (Department of Transportation) or property owners.” (Rego’s assertion of the meat being used is no throwaway. Beaver meat has one of the highest protein concentrations and is delicious, as are muskrat, raccoon, and opossum.)
As Rego points out, Massachusetts is an example of what dwindling trapper populations – or a ban – can cause. To be certain, the Commonwealth didn’t forbid trapping. Rather, in 1996, it limited it to box and cage traps, like Have-a-Hart traps, which will passably catch fishers, muskrats, raccoons, and beavers. They don’t, however, catch them reliably. They’re also heavy, expensive, and awkward, and as a result many trappers have given up.
Five years after the ban, the beaver population in Massachusetts had increased from 24,000 to 70,000. Trapping success rates went in the opposite direction. “We dropped from about a thousand [harvested] beaver annually to a hundred,” Laura Conlee, a Massachusetts state biologist said. “There’s been a dramatic increase in that population since the referendum, with a rise in flood complaints attending it.”
As rodents, beavers proliferate rapidly. They start reproducing at age three, and assuming three kits per year, one pair can potentially produce almost 300 offspring in a decade. This explosion forced the state to capitulate to pragmatism despite the ban.
“In 2000,” Conlee went on, “an emergency permitting process was established. It’s at the town level, through the board of health [presumably to control giardia, or ‘beaver fever’]. If there’s flood damage to roads or private property, a trapper can be called who is then able to use a conibear [a bodygrip-style trap that kills an animal by breaking its neck].” This level of administrative oversight, and the fact that it’s the board of health that’s now managing beaver populations and not people with degrees in wildlife management, is novel. It’s a new paradigm, akin to suburban areas where the autumn ritual of recreational deer hunting has been displaced by professional, year-round snipers working at night with silenced barrels. A resource, then, has been turned into a pest, and recreational trappers/hunters have been replaced by professional exterminators.
One of those converts is Ruth Callahan, wife of Mike Callahan, who runs Beaver Solutions, LLC, out of Southampton, Massachusetts – an outfit largely made possible by the 1996 ban, but one more in line with pest control than trapping. Mike Callahan responds to complaints with water control devices to curtail beaver damage. (Editor’s Note: To learn more about nonlethal beaver control devices, see our story on “beaver baffles” in the Autumn 2006 issue.) In cases where these devices aren’t practical or effective, Ruth steps in with conibears. The 2000 provision, Mike said, has made his business more effective, especially for Ruth. “Before 2000, it might take three or four weeks to get the proper permit. Now it’s a day or two.”
The abundance problem hasn’t abated, though Callahan said that based on anecdotal evidence, he believes the beaver population has leveled since 2000. Conlee notes that the postban rise has changed the population dynamics.
“Beavers are in marginal habitat now: larger river systems, intermittent creeks, places they’ll be pushed closer to humans and maybe a lesser food supply,” said Conlee. “Without trapping harvest records, we can only track recent trends, not long-term population.”
With reduced trapping effort, Brown has seen similar incursions in Rhode Island.
“Some years,” he said, “trappers only take 30 animals. At most a hundred. These numbers don’t do much management-wise, and while there’s still room for expansion in certain systems, in others there’s saturation.” Beavers in those systems have made inroads into thin habitats, including the Woosnasquatucket watershed in Providence. Complaints have skyrocketed, and Brown laments that even without a ban, sagging trapping effort has deprived Rhode Island of “the most effective means to control species that cause economic damage.”
The number of trappers in the Northeast has dropped by nearly half in just two generations. Closer scrutiny, however, shows the numbers beginning to stabilize and in some cases tick up, providing cautious hope among game managers.
After a 10-year decline, for instance, the number of licensed trappers in Maine has steadied at 2,000. “Moreover,” DePue noted, “while anecdotal, there’s been strong interest in our recent trapper’s courses, which is pretty exciting.” Part of this is a reflection of higher fur prices, fueled by burgeoning markets in Russia and China. Part, though, is trappers recognizing that no one will replace them. “We’re even seeing new recruitment,” Bernier stated, sharing DePue’s optimism. “We had one girl make her father go to all the courses and buy a bunch of traps, which is good news.”
The Cultural Thread
That trapping limits human-animal conflict is terrific, that it contains certain diseases even more so, and that it gets people outside and appreciating nature is perhaps best of all. Still, it’s difficult to live outside your own opinion, and being human is nothing if not contradictory. While I’ll always support trapping and hope to go back to it, from the beginning I’ve understood the emotional pull of anti-trappers. I’m under no illusion that a practical look at the pursuit will assuage anyone repulsed by it, and it may be impossible to explain how someone can simultaneously love and respect an animal, then kill it.
The fact remains, though, that among the greatest memories I have are those on a trapline – studying nature, imbibing it, participating in it as the animals themselves. As nearly any trapper will attest, such immersion can’t be replicated, and should trapping disappear through ballot or disinterest, it’s the loss of this language – very nearly a wordless one – that I’d most lament.
“I see a different world out there,” Malcolm Speicher, president of the Massachusetts Trappers Association, said. “One the Average Joe doesn’t. Don’t ask me to explain, though.”
Spencer Tripp, a Massachusetts native who also traps in Rhode Island, spoke to this observation when scouting or trapping.
“I’ve trapped since I was five, and am now 71. What I’ve seen, what I’ve learned through trapping, can’t be duplicated. You’re always looking for species-specific sign, even in spring and summer. In doing so, you observe plants that are no longer common, such as lady slipper and ground pine, and learn of their location. Furthermore, you note general numbers and locations of turtles, snakes, birds, everything – all knowledge that might not have been gained had you not been searching the woods as a trapper.”
In Heart and Blood, Richard Nelson cites a study that puts trappers second only to birdwatchers in general nature knowledge. Trappers, too, have an abstract ken that science is just acquiring. Biologists, for example, are coming to understand that animals possess intelligence rather than instinct, something nearly any trapper could have stated two centuries ago. The field, however, has been abhorred from the start. Ben Franklin called trappers the most “vile and abandoned wretches in our nation.”
Yet if the cultured have inveterately scorned them, trappers have recently been honored by two outside the tribe, unlikely admirers gifted with words.
Like other fine novelists, it’s tough to say where Annie Proulx stands on any issue. Yet in Postcards, which details the dissolution of a Vermont family (and by extension, its rapidly antiquating lifestyle) she expresses profound understanding of her protagonist’s deep woods knowledge, as explained by another character:
“Loyal learnt all his trap-wise ways from old Iris . . . half-wild hisself. Loyal was real clever in layin’ his sets. He was a damn genius with guide sticks, knew how to lay a stalk of hay or bend a goldenrod stem so the fox would step over it every time, right into the trap. Snow sets? He’d put ’em near a tuft of grass stickin’ up out of the new ice along the river edge, see, the foxes go and play on the new ice, or he’d make a trail set in the snow you couldn’t tell anybody been walkin’ there. You got to know your fox and you got to know your terrain.”
Susan Brind Morrow puts this assimilation in modern context. A linguist, Morrow’s memoir of New York’s Finger Lakes region, Wolves and Honey, is among the most eloquent inquiries into how humans currently mesh with nature. The “wolves” of the title traces the eastern coyote’s arrival, and the popular unwelcome attached to it. She parallels this unease with trappers, who had “opened up the continent to settlement” not by extirpating natives but by learning from them, mingling, allowing the refinement that followed. To Morrow, the same disdain of wilderness mingling that appalled Franklin still pervades America today:
“The trapper and the trapped now meet as castoffs in the civilized world. The story of the devolution of the wolf into the scruffy eastern coyote is not unlike that of the American trapper, the primordial hunter of the wild, who allied himself with the Indians, and so learned to survive without the hampering luxuries of settled urban life. The American trapper is something of a Caliban figure now – a chthonic, scruffy character, out-moded and despised. But Caliban is, afterall, the native of the place, the one who knows where everything is.”
If today’s trappers are degrees removed from their forebears, they’re also, like Franklin, more refined. “They’ve turned the corner into the 21st century,” Speicher said, something biologists verify, as for the most part trappers have submitted to regulation. If not as immersed as their harbingers, they speak a similar tongue, something like Spencer Tripp’s – modern English maybe, as opposed to that of Shakespeare, Caliban’s creator.
It may be that trapping will die, and it may be this will turn another corner, around which humans track toward a higher consciousness. That’s not for me to say. I only know that critical communication will be lost. While in Alaska, I admired a couple of ageing fishing guides, Bob and Frank. Bob trapped extensively in the Tongass National Forest, whose stewards hem woods-people further each year with regulation.
“I mean, Jesus,” he told me riverside. “Pretty soon it’ll be so the only people they let in the woods are tourists unable to walk off a path, with some Forest Service guide telling them the scientific names of flowers. Everyone will look at Frank and me like we’re some kind of barbarians.”
I smiled, then cocked an eyebrow, letting him know he was a barbarian. We laughed, but his poignancy has punch. As Brind Morrow would know, “barbarian” is Greek. Cultured Athenians thought all tribes outside the metropolis too close to nature, and that their dialects sounded the same: “bar-bar-bar-bar.” Perhaps, perhaps not, but the shedding of such rhythms has its price.
Mike Freeman lives in Rhode Island. He authored Drifting: Two Weeks on the Hudson (SUNY Press), which was reviewed in the Spring 2012 issue of Northern Woodlands.