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Day One: Deep background
Day Two: Know the rules and regs
Day Three: Setting and skinning
Day Four: The test
Fur marketing, big-time
The chance to attend "Fur School" held intriguing appeal. Would we learn what to look for in a Russian Barguzin sable coat or dyed beaver jacket? A map pinpointing the school's location and the list of suggested student attire hinted that wouldn't be the case. Participants were told to report to the end of a dead end road, in the boondocks north of the Dane County Airport, just past the truck stop, in a cinderblock building succinctly known as the Fur Shed. Wear Sorel boots and coveralls, we were advised; knives and rubber gloves would be provided.
The Fur Shed, a modest brown building, has a colorful past. Rumored to have been a bordello decades ago, the shed was later used to store equipment from the 1985-86 Mesabi Fur Company sting operation, in which undercover state agents from Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin infiltrated the market in unlawfully taken fur and eventually charged 275 people in six states with violating federal statutes to protect rare fur-bearing animals. With all the equipment in-hand and knowledgeable wardens in place, a Fur School evolved to provide law enforcement and wildlife management professionals direct, serious training in trapping and furbearer management. Eventually, with the help of the Wisconsin Trappers Association, the building was renovated in 1999 into the Fur Resources Training Center.
Fur School's eighth cohort, the Class of 2006, brought together 24 participants from DNR, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For four days during the last week of March, the students engaged in intensive, hands-on training led by DNR Furbearer Specialist John Olson, Dennis Brady of the Wisconsin Trappers Association and other experts.
Day One: Deep background
An unusual blend of sensory stimulants greeted participants on the first day of school. Steel traps, wire cages and luxurious beaver, otter, fox and raccoon pelts lined the classroom. An odor of sawdust and dried blood, with hints of musk and strong coffee, lingered in the air. Conversation halted as an occasional jet on its landing path roared just overhead. Heat was an all-or-nothing affair. Adjacent to the classroom, a fur drying room, walk-in freezer and large skinning room equipped with tables big enough for four to work comfortably awaited. Gambrels hung from the ceiling and rubber aprons from hooks on the wall.
In his introductory comments, Olson promised that after two days of classroom lectures, the students' strength of hands and stomachs would be tested by training in trap-setting and putting up fur, the polite term for skinning and fleshing.
Lectures opened with a presentation by Virgil Schroeder, President of the Wisconsin Trappers Association (WTA). The nonprofit organization of 3,800 members places a strong emphasis on education and ethics to help improve the public perception of trapping. The association partners with the Department of Natural Resources by conducting and funding research on dryland cable restraints and mercury concentrations in otter. Members proactively work on solutions to emotion-charged problems like the incidental trapping of pets, recognizing that such problems left unchecked could lead to further restrictions of their sport.
"Very seldom does somebody who has gone through trapper education classes, who learns and uses modern techniques, cause a problem," Schroeder said. "It's more often the older trapper who's been trapping 20 years, never had to take a trapper education course and is set in his ways."
Trapper education has been required in Wisconsin since 1992. Jolene Kuehn, DNR's former trapper education coordinator, said Wisconsin's program is a cooperative effort between the agency and WTA, many of whose members are volunteer instructors. The program is funded by $2 from each trapping license sold. Novice trappers can choose from instructor-led classes, weekend workshops or a correspondence course, and must pass a test before purchasing a license.
Wisconsin's program evolved from a strictly economy-driven management philosophy to one that encompasses furbearer ecology, habitat management and cultural issues like animal welfare. A Technical Furbearer Advisory Committee of 25-30 experts statewide recommends changes to policies, procedures and regulations. The group, including DNR wildlife biologists, endangered resource specialists and wardens, as well as representatives from WTA, Wisconsin Conservation Congress, University of Wisconsin and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, meet annually in late May.
Implementing changes to trapping regulations is a two-year process. "That may seem like a frustratingly long time to some people, but it keeps us and others from making knee-jerk reactions," Olson said. "For example, the body gripper emergency rule passed in 1998 was driven by trap incident reports of 33 dogs caught in traps, 25 of which died. We quickly sat down with members of the WTA and Conservation Congress and said, 'We have to do something about this.' It was an emotional issue with high public visibility. We came up with a complex rule regulating the use of #220 body-grippers on dry land that virtually put a stop to incidental trapping of dogs within two years, without having to ban any traps."
Brian Dhuey, a DNR wildlife research scientist, described the agency's efforts in furbearer surveys and population modeling. Surveys include harvest estimates from registration records and parts collection, population estimates from track counts or helicopter surveys, hunter and trapper questionnaires and market value of furs. Population modeling allows managers to consider "what if" scenarios: By entering factors like population size, sex and age comparisons, harvest mortality and regulation compliance into computerized modeling programs and comparing that data with winter tracking surveys and other independent population estimates, DNR wildlife managers can make calculations to set harvest regulations and keep populations stable over time.
Wisconsin is one of 31 states helping to develop and use Best Management Practices (BMPs) for trapping. Wisconsin trappers field-test and evaluate traps based on their humaneness, efficiency, selectivity, practicality and safety to trappers and the public. BMPs evolved to continually improve humane treatment in taking animals and to address anti-trapping sentiments of the 1960s and '70s. This effort was invaluable in international negotiations among Canada, Europe, Russia and the United States about the humaneness of foothold traps. Since 1996, federal and state wildlife agencies have invested $4.6 million on trap testing, public education and BMPs.
Foothold traps capture live animals for many purposes, such as to reduce human/wildlife conflicts, move animals that become a nuisance to people, protect rare or endangered plant and animal species, conduct wildlife research or relocate species in efforts to establish populations in other states. "We need to sustain trapping as a wildlife management tool and BMPs help us by enhancing public awareness and understanding of modern trapping," Olson said. "A survey conducted by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in 2001 showed 73 percent of Wisconsin residents support regulated trapping."
Later in the day students learned furbearer and trap identification. Generally described as an animal whose fur has a dense undercoat of soft hair with longer "guard hair" on top during the winter, the term "furbearer" in Wisconsin is by law specifically restricted to muskrat, mink, weasel, beaver, fisher, otter, skunk, raccoon, fox, coyote, bobcat and opossum.
Wisconsin trappers use a variety of traps, based on three general categories. Foothold and box traps hold animals live until they can be released or quickly, humanely killed. Foothold traps come in many sizes and designs, including the single and double long spring, coilspring, guarded foothold, and the padded foothold trap. Each type has an advantage in different situations. Foothold traps can be used both on dry land and as drowning sets for beaver or muskrat. Box or cage traps are used most extensively for research or to trap target animals where the potential of accidentally trapping domestic animals is high.
Body-gripping traps, which usually kill the trapped animal quickly through a combination of striking and clamping forces, also come in several sizes and are most often used in water sets. They are useful on land but care must be taken to avoid trapping nontarget species. Wisconsin regulations prohibit the use of body-gripping traps larger than 7 x 7 inches on dry land. Snares (used underwater) and dryland cable restraints are simplified body-gripping devices that can either kill (snares), or hold animals alive (cable restraints).
Day Two: Know the rules and regs
Wardens Nathan Kroeplin and John Welke opened the second day of classroom lectures with an overview of Wisconsin trapping regulations. Students learned where and when trappers can pursue their sport, what kinds of traps they can use in each situation, how they can and can't place them, license and permit information, requirements for checking traps, possession restrictions, what to do if they accidentally trap a nontarget animal, which species are protected at all times, and other information about pine marten restoration, trapper education and BMPs.
Dave Bouche, park naturalist from Devil's Lake State Park, gave one of the more "cerebral" presentations of the course: He demonstrated a technique called brain tanning, which uses the oil in an animal's brain to tan its hide.
Brain tanning was the traditional method of converting animal skins into clothing used by Native Americans and early settlers. "Why would anybody want to brain-tan today?" Bouche asked. "It's a link back to a simpler time when our ancestors were more self-reliant. It's a natural process that involves no harsh chemicals. But most importantly, it's a cheap and relatively easy method of tanning pelts for poor naturalists."
Bouche demonstrated by rubbing a mixture he had prepared at home – cow's brain simmered in a little water and then pureed – into the pre-soaked skin of a raccoon. The skin is left to dry, and then it is scraped and "worked" over the edge of a workbench or board until soft and white. It's a gradual, rather time-consuming process, but extremely gratifying, Bouche said.
Jonathan Gilbert, a wildlife researcher with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, told how he uses traps to catch and release animals for his research. Gilbert detailed the intricacies of setting traps to selectively capture only the animal he is studying. "A foothold trap, for example, can be selective by adjusting the pan so a 10-pound fisher won't set it off, but a 20-pound bobcat will," Gilbert said. "Just like the commercial trapper, the more we know about how an animal behaves and acts, the more effective and selective we can be. We know that fishers and martens are curious by nature so we don't have to worry about disguising our scent. Bobcats, on the other hand, are more wary so we use gloves when setting traps for them."
Researchers also use hair traps, designed to lure animals like the endangered pine marten; hair samples attach as the animal passes through, confirming a specific species' presence in an area. Gilbert also makes extensive use of box traps – called Tomahawk traps after their manufacturer located in Tomahawk, Wis. – in mark/recapture and radio-collar studies, and motion-triggered video cameras. Besides "catching" animals on tape, this technology gives researchers valuable visual evidence and insight into animal behavior.
Veterinary Wildlife Health Specialist Julie Langenberg gave an overview of furbearer diseases in Wisconsin. She stressed that much of the determination of an animal's health is behavioral. "If an animal is behaving strangely, it's best to be wary," Langenberg said. She emphasized the importance of rabies vaccinations for wildlife biologists, whose occupation carries a "high-risk" ranking from the Center for Disease Control.
Langenberg listed and described several zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted from wildlife to people through breaks in skin, contact with feces or bodily fluid, or by eating infected animals. Although zoonotics like rabies, tularemia, sarcoptic mange, echinococcus canid tapeworm, raccoon roundworm and leptospirosis may be rare in Wisconsin, precautions should be taken nonetheless. Furbearer diseases that don't pose a risk to humans include canine distemper virus and parvovirus.
Langenberg cautioned students not to aid in disease transmission. "Use good hygiene by cleaning your traps and gloves between catches so you don't spread disease from one animal to the next."
Langenberg told an especially sobering story about raccoon roundworm. When this parasite commonly found in raccoons infects humans, its larvae penetrate the small intestine and migrate through the body to the brain, eyes and other organs. It is very difficult to treat and Langenberg said wildlife managers should stress in their public contacts the importance of keeping children and pets away from raccoons and their nesting areas.
Tuesday concluded with a field trip to the North American Fur Auction, an auction house that brokers the sale of over two million ranch mink and one million pieces of wild fur each year (see sidebar).
Day Three: Setting and skinning
The day many had eagerly anticipated arrived when Dennis Brady and other volunteer WTA instructors handed out foothold traps to pairs of students, who first practiced setting them in the classroom. Instructors then set off for the wilds around the Fur Shed, traps in hand and students in tow, to demonstrate the fine art of setting a dry land set. Other traps shown included the body-gripper, Egg, Duffer, Lil' Griz, cage, snare and cable restraint.
After mastering trap-setting, students were issued rubber gloves and aprons and introduced to the skinning experts. This was the point to check queasiness at the door, take a deep breath and pay close attention, because after watching one demonstration, we would step into the walk-in cooler, pick out an animal and get to skinning.
The animals used in Fur School are collected throughout the trapping season and kept frozen until the start of school. Some are road kills, but most are incidental catches handed over to conservation wardens and donated to Fur School.
Some students were obviously experienced skinners and grabbed the larger otters and fishers. Others of us subscribed to the "smaller is better" theory and stuck with mink and muskrat. Instructors passed among us with hints for stripping tails, avoiding scent and oil glands, and hanging animals from gambrels to ease the process.
Most animals, with the exception of beaver, are skinned by slitting the skin from one hind foot to the other and peeling the skin down over the animal's head as we would remove a pullover sweater. The resulting tube-shaped pelt is called a "cased" fur. Some cased furs are left skin-side out, most commonly muskrat, mink, weasel, raccoon, otter and skunk. Pelts prepared with the fur side out include gray and red fox, coyote, fisher and bobcat. Beavers are skinned "open" by making an incision down the underside from tail to nose.
After the animals were skinned, they had to be fleshed, the process of scraping away the meat and fat. Skins were pulled taut fur side in over a pointed board – like a narrow ironing board – called a fleshing beam. Starting at the head and using a two-handled curved scraper, the instructors showed us how to use just the right stroke to remove the flesh without applying too much pressure to weaken or puncture the fur, and how to reposition the skin from side to side, gradually moving toward the tail until the skin was clean. Instructors stressed the importance of removing all fat to prevent fur spoilage.
Fleshing was followed by stretching on special wooden boards. Skins were stretched fur side in, centered so that forelegs and belly were on one side and eyes, ears and back on the other, then stapled in place. Beavers were stretched by nailing to a round board or sewn into a hoop frame. Skins were then allowed to dry in a place away from direct heat or sunlight. Pelts that would be finished fur side out were only partially dried on the boards, then after six to eight hours were turned fur side out to finish drying. Depending on the drying conditions, skins take two to five days to dry thoroughly.
Day Four: The test
On the final day of Fur School students practiced placing some of the trickier sets like body-gripper, snare and cable restraint traps in the woods and wetlands near the fur shed. They also picked up more tips on handling and preparing different types of pelts including a demonstration of skinning and stretching beaver.
Then it was time to step back and admire what four days of new knowledge and hours of careful scraping had wrought. Laid out on the tables, the drying pelts worked by the students would soon be irresistible to touch. Hands would reach out to stroke the gleaming furs, marveling at the soft, smooth textures. Some students were so enthusiastic that they put up a fur for a local biology class, prepared a set of skulls for classroom use or even preserved jars showing internal parasites they picked out of and off of the specimens!
Furs put up by students are donated for educational purposes to park naturalists, wildlife managers and other governmental agencies on a first-come, first-served basis. Any furs that remain after those requests are sent to fur auctions. Starting this year, thanks to legislative support, proceeds from such incidental furs are returned to the trapper education program. "This will be an important funding source to further our trapper education training," Olson said.
To wrap up the course, students took the trapper education exam, a 50-question test covering all aspects of the Fur School training. As with other outdoor education courses, the cost for the first year's trapping license is included in the course fees for state residents who pass the exam and receive a completion certificate. They also had fun with a sort of Fur School Jeopardy. Students were divided into three teams named for the largest fur companies of the 1700s. When they knew an answer, team members grabbed a stick, banged a 50-gallon barrel at the front of the room and blurted out the answer. That lively and noisy competition ended as all students were recognized for their achievements.
Fur School will be back next spring by popular demand. Olson says the school has branched out to offer condensed three-day training at UW-Madison, UW-Stevens Point and Northland College so that wildlife ecologists in training can also share the experience.
Fur School graduates overwhelmingly rate the course as excellent with "some of the most informative, hands-on training" offered by the Department of Natural Resources. In fact, feedback from some students suggests the course be lengthened to five days, with more time devoted to tracks, setting traps and skinning. Harvey Halvorsen, a 2006 graduate, suggested that an extra day would allow students to set live traps overnight and learn how to handle what they catch.
Kris Johansen, another 2006 graduate, said, "Much of the information I learned will be incorporated in talks I give to clubs, school groups and hunter education groups. I'll have a better understanding and be able to communicate better with the trapping community. And I'll definitely be doing some more trapping!"
Kathryn A. Kahler is a Wildlife Ecology graduate, trapper in training and circulation/promotions manager for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine in Madison.