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Know the West

In the '90s, trapping still has a role


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

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.

As 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 budget.

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 emotion.

"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 says.

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 Rothwell.

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 damage.

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.