The heyday of the mountain man lasted only a few decades, ending in the 1830s, when both the market and the supply of beaver fizzled out. But the tradition lives on. In towns around the West, and even in the Midwest, "mountain men" celebrate with historical re-enactments of the raucous rendezvous. One rendezvous in Fort Bridger, Wyo., draws as many as 60,000 people during Labor Day weekend.
At these events, whole families don
fur caps and leathers, and the men shoot black powder rifles, throw
hatchets and drink whiskey. In real life, they might teach junior
high mathematics or paint houses, but here, for a short while, they
can travel back into history. Accuracy is important to these modern
mountain men, but few would go so far as to trap furbearing animals
and cure the hides to make their own clothing.
the demand for beaver pelts died in the 19th century, the purpose
of trapping shifted from making money to controlling predators.
This was especially true in the late 1800s, after much of the
native wildlife, particularly buffalo, had been wiped out. It was
then that wolves, grizzly bears, coyotes and mountain lion found
the white man's "slow elk" to be ready pickings.
Thus, trapping entered the era of predator
control, and the most effective - some say too effective - effort
proved to be government-subsidized. Federal or state-funded control
agents, also known as "wolfers," used any number of tools,
including poisons, guns and traps.
By the turn of
this century, many of the predators had been trapped out, much like
the beaver before them. Yet the country was still rural, with many
a farm kid running a small trapline to supplement the family
income. In the Great Depression, furs, particularly muskrat,
raccoon and beaver, added welcome cash to the family
In today's rural West, ranchers employ or
permit trappers to trap predators, particularly coyotes. Except in
states where trapping has been banned, nearly every community has
active trappers. But in recent years, as living Out West and
cyber-commuting have grown in popularity, urban people have pushed
into rural areas. They bring family pets that are at risk for
accidental trapping and they often believe that trapping is
abhorrent and inhumane.
"Trapping is the most
emotional issue overall of any of our methods of utilizing or
managing wildlife populations," says Reg Rothwell, supervisor of
biological services for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "It's
because of the way that the animal is caught in leghold traps and
waits there for the trapper to show up. There's the rub, in my
opinion, the biggest stumbling block that rides up against human
"It doesn't matter how many volumes of
data you have that can show otherwise, when you are up against
human emotion, you are going to get shut down," he
At current levels, modern-day trapping has
little effect on overall furbearer populations, says Rothwell,
since regulations prevent trappers from "trapping out" areas the
way the mountain man did with the beaver. "Trapping is a tool, just
like hunting, that can be used to harvest surplus populations of
wildlife." Trapping can also be effective in predator control,
particularly in sheep lambing areas, says
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department
uses trapping, as well as other methods of predator control, when
its agents work to establish or transplant populations of sensitive
species such as bighorn sheep.
"We'll go into an
area and do some predator control to give the (transplanted)
animals a chance to get a foothold, to get to know where the escape
cover is. After a few years, we'll back off."
Trapping is also an excellent tool for specific
wildlife problems, such as muskrats digging into levees, Rothwell
says, since it almost always captures the animal that is doing the
Live trapping also comes in handy when
federal agencies restore an endangered or threatened species to an
area. Americans have Canadian trappers to thank for bringing back
wolves and lynx to the West.