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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

October 2000

Caught in time

A venerable method of capturing animals, trapping,
has more uses today than it ever did during the time of the voyageurs.

Jen Patterson

Trapping was the mainstay of the economy that settled Wisconsin. Though the French fur trade vanished long ago, trapping as a livelihood, service and hobby still thrives here. According to DNR license sales, more than 13,000 trappers in Wisconsin spend an estimated $15 million annually trapping for a variety of reasons.

Some still trap furbearing mammals to prepare and sell pelts for the modern-day fur trade. Others have found lucrative markets for by-products in pharmaceutical and cosmetic lines. Still others use traps to conduct scientific research on wild animal populations. Some use traps to control wildlife causing damage to human property.

Homeowners often get introduced to trapping in a small way in varmint control – setting mousetraps in the house, ant traps under the sink, cage traps to relocate a possum living under the porch, or kill traps to eliminate moles tearing up the yard. Whatever the reason, the successful household trapper follows the same steps as other trappers: learning an animal's habits, judging the animal's travel routes, determining a bait or placement that will entice the animal, and learning to control rather than eliminate the population.

From fur to pharmaceuticals

Scott Peterson is serious about using every part of the animals he traps. His beaver tooth necklace is truly amazing: The yellow-orange upper and lower incisors hung between cross-sections of deer antler on a leather thong. Few people might choose to wear it, but it was a piece of art.

He brought out other items: Hats made of bobcat and raccoon fur, a teddy bear covered in otter fur, even beaver scat specimens encased in clear plastic. Peterson, the volunteer Trapper Education Coordinator for the State of Wisconsin, continued to unravel his treasures, including a knife sheath made from a snapping turtle's foot.

He began trapping 33 years ago, self-taught by reading fur, fish and game magazines. "Everything about trapping was always a competition back then," Peterson said. "Nobody wanted to share knowledge about trapping, so reading about it and making mistakes was the only way I had to learn the right way to do things." Today, in cooperation with the DNR, he coordinates the Wisconsin trapper education program to give new trappers the training and encouragement they need to be effective and humane.

Peterson traps animals for the multitude of products they provide. He makes leather from tanned beaver tails and natural poultices using the dried castor glands from beaver. "Beaver meat is probably the most delicious thing you'll ever eat in your life," he said. Carcasses of the animals he doesn't eat – coyote and fox – go to a rendering plant where they are cooked and used as a protein base in livestock feeds.

It's surprising how many products from trapped animals are used in our homes, work places and in foods. Fats are siphoned and reformulated into fatty acids for pharmaceuticals, homeopathic medicines and gummy candies. Animal fat is used in crayons, cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, lotions, lipsticks, and in making hard plastics. Some rendering plants have a separate process for mink, from which they make mink oil, an excellent preservative and softener for leather products.

The pelts Peterson does not keep for his own use are sold to fur auction houses. Contrary to popular belief, the fur industry is still very much alive and thriving. In fact, over the past year, prices have risen at auction houses, reflecting an increase in demand. In February 2000, over 150 buyers from all over the world attended the North American Fur Auctions (NAFA) in Canada, the largest fur auction in the world. Otter, muskrat, beaver, fisher, coyote, red fox, mink, raccoon, bobcat and squirrel pelts went to the highest bidder. Before the sale each pelt was graded according to size and quality, and pelts of the same grade were grouped together for sale. Beaver pelts, used to make high quality felt hats, sold for an average of $22. Each otter fetched $64, and buyers could collect raccoon pelts for under $10.

Fur sales make a sizeable contribution to Wisconsin's economy. The total value of pelts sold here in 1998 was more than $9.7 million, with raccoon, muskrat and beaver pelts together accounting for 87 percent of the total.

Peterson has trapped the same area since 1977, and he is careful not to remove too many animals from the environment. "I could take out every furbearer in that area, but I don't because I know that I only need the surplus," he said. Peterson feels that trapping is responsible wildlife management and questions whether allowing animals to suffer naturally from starvation or lack of space is necessary. In his courses, Peterson teaches new and veteran trappers about population dynamics and the animal life cycles, in addition to effective and humane trapping methods. "I firmly believe that trapping would have no future without the Wisconsin education program," he said. "It's just that important."

When the best defense is a trap

While Scott traps to spend time outdoors, harvest animal products and bring in money from fur sales, many people in Wisconsin trap to protect their property.

On Weyh Road near Portage, Dennis and Bev Weyh have waged war on raccoons. The fruits of the Weyhs' labor – corn, soybeans and hay – have proven very palatable to raccoons. The Weyhs' only defense, they say, is trapping.

Last year, three raccoons broke open a rusty spot at the top of a three-ton bin and feasted on corn until they worked their way six feet down. Rick Tischaefer, a trapper hired to help take care of the problem, came over to pull them out. Raccoons had broken through bags of grain, ruining it as they spread it all over the ground. The Weyhs' patch of sweet corn gets hit the hardest, Bev said. To keep the animals out, they put an electric fence around the corn. A couple of years ago, the Weyhs didn't get the fence up in time and the raccoons took the whole patch overnight; not a single ear was left.

Raccoons aren't the only wild animals that can become nuisance problems in Wisconsin. Black bear, deer, wolves, coyotes, beaver, foxes, fisher, mink, muskrat, opossums, otter, skunks and squirrels are also to blame for the approximately $2.7 million dollars in damage done every year to human property. Unless the property damage is related to agriculture and the owners have enrolled in a damage abatement and claims program, private citizens have to absorb the cost with no assistance. The damage could be as simple as a destroyed bird feeder, or as expensive as siding on a home.

The number-one respondent to wildlife-related damage is the United States Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services. According to John Maestrelli, the Wisconsin state director, Wildlife Services received 74,500 calls regarding nuisance control assistance between 1990 and 1999. In the same period of time, they trapped and relocated 4,643 problem black bears. In the northern third of the state, Wildlife Services also maintains 750 miles of streams in a beaver-free condition to protect trout spawning habitat. In almost every instance, trapping is a necessary part of their work. "If you eliminate trapping, the magnitude of problems would increase to the point where there is no solution," Maestrolli said. "After traps there really is no other alternative."

Although the Weyhs have never calculated total losses to raccoons, they are certain it is substantial enough to warrant all of the labor involved. Every bag of feed lost is $60 out of their pockets; the sweet corn seed runs $8 per pound. Fence posts, wire and electricity to keep the raccoons out cost money, but both Bev and Dennis cringed at the thought of not controlling the population. Dennis shook his head and said, "I can't imagine what the damage would be like if they weren't removed." With too many raccoons around, the threat of disease or parasite transmission is always possible "It's necessary to trap them," Bev explained. "If overpopulation occurs, disease will set in, and there's no other natural enemy."

Trapping in research

Natural predators, like wolves, could also cause problems on the Weyhs' beef farm. Farmers in northern Wisconsin, where wolf populations are increasing, find that the natural predators do occasionally feed on domestic livestock. To eliminate conflict between farmers and wolves, DNR wolf biologist Ron Schultz uses non-lethal studded-jaw, or toothed, foothold traps to capture wolves for collaring.

Schultz developed a trapping technique during the last 18 years as the DNR's wolf technician. The toothed trap is illegal to use on dry land, but the DNR has obtained a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use it for this purpose. Ironically, the trap with the worst image in the public eye has been deemed the most humane for catching and releasing wolves in the wild. Schultz says the teeth on the trap prevent injury from sawing, which can happen with regular traps. In addition, the wolf's paw is in enough pain to keep the animal from struggling and dislocating a shoulder. When Schultz traps wolves his goal is to release the animals as untouched as possible, so these factors are very important.

The trapped wolves are fitted with radio collars, which allow Schultz to track their movements and pack formations. For 18 years the collars have helped biologists make accurate counts of the number of wolves settling in Wisconsin. According to Adrian Wydeven, a DNR conservation biologist based in Park Falls, trapping and collaring wolves allows for more accurate population estimates. "No other mammal study is quite this intense in Wisconsin," he said. "We need to be sure of what we're counting, especially when it comes to reclassifying an endangered animal." In fact, Wisconsin's population estimates for wolves have been so reliable that the animal was downlisted to threatened in the state just last year.

A few years ago, Ron Schultz began experimenting with a method of reducing wolf depredation on livestock in Burnett County, just outside of Danbury. One farmer in particular lost 40 calves to wolves in 1997-8. Schultz didn't want to see the wolf responsible put down for her actions. As he put it: "Wolves are wild creatures; you can't blame them for doing what comes naturally to them."

Schultz trapped the guilty wolf and outfitted it with a shock collar. A remote device housed on the edge of the pasture sends a shock to any collar within a half-mile radius. The shock is not harmful to the animal, but it is painful enough to keep the wolf away from the cattle.

Since the first trial period using the shock collar system, the number of missing calves has decreased to zero in the last year, without having to remove any wolves from the area. Before the shock collar system was developed, a single beef farm near Danbury claimed more than $10,000 for livestock lost to wolves, and the wolves were often put down or unsuccessfully relocated. "This alternate seems to be working well," Schultz said of his shock collar system. "Farmers aren't losing cattle, and wolves aren't being killed."

How other species benefit from trapping

Traps play a significant role in the protection of the common tern, another endangered species. In this case, traps help biologists remove predators from breeding areas. Common terns have very localized breeding hotspots and the chicks are vulnerable to preying mink. "Mink can do a tremendous amount of damage," said Greg Kessler, DNR wildlife biologist out of Brule. There are less than a thousand terns statewide and predators can ruin an entire year's nesting success if they are not controlled. Mink are caught in kill traps; the carcasses are used in training courses for DNR employees and the skulls are used for educational programs throughout the state.

Another endangered species in Wisconsin that has benefited greatly from trapping is the American, or pine, marten. Due to loss of habitat and unregulated trapping, martens were extirpated from Wisconsin by 1939. Then, between 1975 and 1983, the department reintroduced martens obtained from Ontario and Colorado to the Nicolet National Forest. The martens were caught using cage traps. Trapping also helped researchers evaluate marten success in Wisconsin. In 1985, trapping confirmed that the animals had established a breeding population here.

Jonathan Gilbert, wildlife biologist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) studied martens from 1991 to 1994 in the Nicolet and Chequamegon National Forests. Gilbert trapped martens with Sherman cage traps, radio collared the animals and tracked them three or four times a week using telemetry equipment. He also measured the size and weight of each animal, and checked for parasites and evidence of reproduction.

Gilbert determined where the martens were living, and also specific requirements for den sites. His work will be instrumental as the two national forests revise their management plans this year. The marten is considered a sensitive species and it is important to be aware of their habitat needs in forest management plans.

In another study, Gilbert used Tomahawk box traps to catch fisher and foothold traps to catch bobcat for a study to see if the animals share habitat and food resources. With radio telemetry, he observed the habits of the animals he had trapped and collared.

"If you're going to study an individual animal, you need to be able to catch it somehow," he said. "I've got to be able to put my hands on them and I can't do that without a trap."

Wildlife researchers have used traps for just about every kind of animal in Wisconsin. Reptiles, amphibians, raptors, songbirds, deer, and small mammals like chipmunks and mice have been trapped in Wisconsin for the sake of research. The research done throughout the state gives us valuable information on individual species, whole communities, and indices of air and water quality.

Today's trappers are wildlife damage experts, researchers, harvesters and landowners who go to great lengths to remove bats from the attic or snakes from the garage. Trapping is just as necessary as it was 300 years ago, and its uses have grown through the years. As Ron Schultz put it, "I just don't know what we'd do without it."

Jen Patterson is a communications specialist for the National Association of State Foresters in Washington D.C. She formerly served as Outdoor Heritage Communicator for the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources.

Trapper education
In 1992 the Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Trappers Association developed a formal trapper education course all new trappers are required to attend. Each of the 250 volunteer instructors goes through formal training and a background check to become certified.

Classes last an average of 20 hours and span two or three days, either evenings or weekends. Students learn trapping laws and ethics; trap preparation, adjustment, setting, and safety; humane trapping methods; pelt preparation, skinning, grading, and marketing; trapping history; furbearer management, biology; and more. While only new trappers are required to take the class, veteran trappers often attend as well. When the class is over each successful graduate receives a certificate, arm patch and a trapping license. Since 1992, nearly 4,800 students have graduated from trapper education.

Visit the DNR website at Wisconsin Cooperative Trapper Education Program for more details, or contact Pat Beringer, Wisconsin DNR Trapping Coordinator, DNR, 101 South Webster St., Madison, WI 53707-7921. Phone him at (608) 261-6452 or e-mail at Pat Beringer

A correspondence course is available for students who cannot attend the regular classes. Contact Mike Widner, Correspondence Course Director, P.O. Box 483, Baraboo WI, 53913. Phone: 608/356-9622.

Species Population Status and Harvest, 1997-98
Species Trapping Harvest Hunting Harvest Total Average Price ($) Total Value ($)
Beaver 36,320 - 36,320 17.76 645,043
Bobcat 108 80 188 43.70 9,439
Coyote 3,330 14,201 17,531 10.38 181,972
Fisher 3,644 - 3,644 33.05 120,434
Gray Fox 1,618 11,938 13,556 9.18 124,444
Mink 28,767 - 28,767 12.56 361,314
Muskrat 456,839 - 456,839 3.11 1,420,769
Otter 2,704 - 2,704 43.70 118,165
Opossum 25,094 - 25,094 1.47 36,888
Raccoon 243,879 194,205 438,084 14.63 6,409,169
Red Fox 7,603 6,944 14,547 15.63 227,370
Skunk 11,430 - 11,430 4.33 49,492
Weasel 6,027 - 6,027 2.97 17,900