You can hear the pleasure in his voice. "Look at those beauties. Hello, ladies, hello, you beautiful things," says Tom Lucas. Five bighorn ewes wander away from us, only slightly alarmed at two humans in their territory. "I just love seeing wildlife."
Tom Lucas is a trapper. He's been a
trapper for most of his 53 years. Each winter, Lucas runs traplines
on public and private land around Fremont County, Wyo., taking
bobcat, fox, coyotes and the occasional raccoon. It's hard work, he
says, and you don't make much money.
work your butt to the bone," says Lucas. "I made $7,000 last year
for four months' work. As wages, that's not too shiny."
We are on the way to check one of Lucas' bobcat
traps. It is several hundred feet above us, tucked beneath the rim
of a great dolomite cliff on a ranch owned by the heirs of a New
York stockbroker, who bought the place many years ago for a
The ranch lies at the mouth of a canyon
that leads deep into the Wind River Range. Far below us, the North
Fork of the Popo Agie River splashes through hay meadows and past
forests of aspen and stands of cottonwood. It's a beautiful day in
the middle of a mild winter.
In the trap is a
skunk, a "non-target" animal that has been caught in a leghold trap
set for bobcat.
"Doggone trash animal," says
Lucas. The trap that caught the skunk is rigged several feet from a
"cubby set," a trap placed in a small cove or hollow where it will
arouse the curiosity that characterizes all members of the cat
family. A feather or bit of fur dangles above the trap. Scent in
the form of bobcat urine is sprinkled around the area to further
intrigue the animal. But strong winds two nights ago uncovered
Lucas' trap, and the steel jaws lie exposed and
Lucas slings a battered cloth pack
to the ground and pulls out a trowel and a sifting screen. He takes
soil from near the trap and sifts it back over the jaws, covering
them from sight. "You wouldn't dare do this with a coyote set," he
says. "Coyotes are a real challenge."
He pulls a
bottle of bobcat urine from the pack and sprinkles it around the
area. Then he moves into position to dispatch the skunk, shooting
it twice with his .22 Smith and Wesson
"Let's get out of here," he says and we
move off quickly, the strong odor of the skunk filling the air. "No
matter how you kill them, they always spray."
We've spent the morning checking traps that
Lucas runs on the upper North Fork some 15 miles outside Lander,
Wyo. We find nothing except for the skunk and a raccoon that was
caught in a Conibear trap set on another
"I perform a service for ranchers," says
Lucas, who considers himself a "predator control specialist."
Ranchers often provide him with fuel so he can drive his Toyota
pickup out to the remote ends of the county. There, he sets snares
to catch coyotes, or leghold traps for bobcats. The ranchers say
they need to control coyote populations to avoid livestock losses.
Lucas is in demand.
When Lucas isn't trapping, he
paints or sketches. Indeed, much of his income results from the
sale of his oils and pen and ink sketches. Many have a Western
theme - a cowboy working a young colt - or a wildlife
"I love being outdoors and I love
wildlife," says Lucas. Later in February, he catches a large pine
marten in the same trap that took the skunk. He put the carcass of
the marten in his freezer so he can paint a picture later. "Come by
when your article comes out and I'll show it to you," says
Though many Westerners despise coyotes,
Lucas says he admires them. "They are a real challenge (to trap),
the number-one challenge. And they are a beautiful animal," he
Last winter, he trapped 106 coyotes. This
winter, his total will likely come close to that number. Back at
his home, where he maintains a museum filled with his artwork,
antique spurs and bridles, and other Western artifacts, 80 skinned
coyote carcasses form a pile that will grow a little bit more
before Lucas hauls it off.
"That's my winter's
take so far," says Lucas. "I'm almost done. In a couple of weeks,
I'll pull most of my lines and then I'll be done."
Trapping is a skill that takes years to learn,
and persistence as well, he says. "There's three things to remember
when it comes to trapping: location, location, location."
Those who know him think Lucas is as close to a
modern-day mountain man as one can be in an era of high-tech micro
chips and computerized video games.
He is aware
of the controversy that surrounds modern trapping, he usually keeps
a low profile. He knows of other trappers whose traplines have been
vandalized by anti-trapping activists. Of the states that have
banned commercial and recreational trapping, he says, "They are
going to live to regret it. Ever since man showed up on the scene,
we have had to have some kind of control over wildlife."
Lucas readily admits that he's somewhat a
prisoner to the whims of the world trade. This past winter, when
the Russian economy began to flag, so too did the prices for
In the mid-'80s, fur brought a premium
price, but Lucas doesn't want to see those days come back. "When
fur prices are really high, everybody and his brother is out
trapping and it really is a problem," says Lucas. "It's like
everything else, there's a few bad apples out there and they make
it bad for everybody."
He says that bobcat
numbers still haven't rebounded from over-trapping during those
years. "They (other trappers) just trapped them right out."
This year, Lucas found a place where he caught
eight bobcats, but he won't go back there next year. "You've got to
let them come back."
Lucas has also caught
non-target animals, eagles and hawks, magpies, dogs and feral cats.
"You hate to do it, but it's impossible not to have an accidental
House cats gone wild, though, are a
different matter; he shoots them. "They can do more damage to a
wildlife population than 10 coyotes."
Ninety-nine percent of the time, he can free any
dog trapped or snared, though over the years a few have died. "You
just hate for it to happen, but a lot of my traps are way, way up
on the hill and there's just no reason for a dog to be all the way
up there running wildlife. There's no excuse for it. It's the
owners' fault for letting them run like that."
Lucas says it's also important for the trapper
not to set traps near populated areas. "I've been asked (to set
traps) by some ranchers on the Lower North Fork (an area of
ranchettes sprinkled among larger ranches), but I just won't do it.
I'd be catching every damn dog in the country."
* Tom Reed