A Wyoming trapper seeks pelts, and beauty
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.
"You just 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 song.
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 ineffective.
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 pistol.
"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 ranch.
"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 theme.
"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 Lucas.
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 says.
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 fur.
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 catch."
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