By Jason Abraham. Photography by Tom Thulen.
The giggling 11-year-old boy—who moments before was bouncing and singing the theme to the Green Acres television show—was gone. In his place, a serious young man perched alongside his father atop a frozen beaver lodge.
Using a heavy chisel called a spud, the young man slowly chopped a small hole in the ice by the lodge. Suspended beneath the ice hole, two thin iron poles held a beaver trap, placed just in front of the lodge's underwater entrance.
Jacob Opelia's father, Jeff, knelt to grab the tips of the poles and pull up the trap. "Feels a little heavy," he said. "Could be something in here." Moments later, an empty trap—tangled in floating vegetation—emerged from the icy water. Jacob's expectant grin fell.
"Well, that's why they call it trapping, not shopping," his father said, trying to lighten the young man's mood. He cleared vegetation from the trap, reset it, and pushed it back into the icy water.
Like many trappers, Jeff Opelia doesn't attract much attention. He lives with his wife and son in a modest rural home southwest of Little Falls. He goes to church, volunteers for the Lion's Club, and teaches science at a local middle school. But when the weather cools and furbearer pelts begin reaching their prime, he becomes a modern-day trapper.
On average, about 6,000 people buy a Minnesota trapping license each year. Most would rather concern themselves with setting traps, skinning animals, and selling hides than doing public relations for trapping. But years of bad publicity from groups seeking to outlaw the practice have changed the ways of today's trappers. Recently, trappers have been organizing and campaigning to show trapping in a better light. By sharing their knowledge and traditions, they hope to help preserve a practice that dates back to Minnesota's earliest history.
It's a blustery Saturday morning in February, late in the year for trapping. Seasons for fisher, pine marten, and otter closed weeks ago; and Opelia is focused on trapping beaver, which is open until May 15. He stops his pickup at a frozen pond near the Stearns-Morrison county line. Like many of his sets, this one is on private land; and Opelia enters with standing permission from the landowner. Because keeping beaver populations in check helps curb flooding, landowners are usually glad to let Opelia set a few traps.
Opelia sees the practice as an integral part of wildlife management. "Without trappers," he says, "landowners, counties, cities, and the state would have to pay to remove beaver dams, muskrat houses, and the like from culverts. By taking pelts in season, trappers are able to profit and provide the additional benefit of animal control."
Opelia started trapping as a youngster, catching gophers in his parents' back yard. At age 10 he started trying to trap beaver, but with no experience and no one to teach him, success came slowly. "It was four years before I finally trapped and held a beaver," he says. "Most of what I learned came from reading trapping magazines like Fur-Fish-Game."
We hike a short distance to the day's second frozen beaver lodge. Jeff and Jacob carry pack baskets filled with metal stakes and extra traps. Snow snakes blow across the frozen pond's surface as the temperature dips below zero. This time, Jeff does the chopping and lifts another empty trap. "It could be one of those days," he says, pushing the trap back into the icy water.
Throughout the season, which begins in October, he'll catch 20 to 60 beavers and dozens of muskrats, as well as raccoon, mink, fox, and sometimes otter. Proceeds from his furs pay for a weeklong family summer vacation at Jesse Lake in northern Minnesota.
Later in the day, after pulling and resetting many empty traps, Opelia heads to his skinning house, a large outbuilding next to his home. The skinning house holds traps, glass jars of beaver glands for masking human odor and attracting beavers, metal stakes for securing traps in the ground, knives for skinning, and hides tacked to boards for drying.
Like many trappers, Opelia uses three styles of traps—those that hold the animal by the foot (foothold traps), those that hold by the body to cause a quick kill (bodygrip traps or conibears), and those that enclose the animal (cage traps). This time of year, Opelia uses large bodygrip traps to catch beaver as they travel under ice.
Today's traps feature improved springs and jaws that hold animals securely without breaking bones or piercing flesh. This also allows trappers to efficiently hold animals in smaller traps, thus decreasing the possibility of catching and holding larger animals that aren't being targeted. The surface area of trap jaws have been widened and smoothed; sometimes they are offset to leave a small gap when closed for holding the animal securely without causing injury.
To further improve the effectiveness of trapping and guard the welfare of animals, several states, including Minnesota, are working through the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to develop best management practices for trapping 23 species of furbearers in North America. "These are voluntary guidelines for trappers and state wildlife agencies that detail the most effective, safe, and cost efficient ways to trap that minimize injury to captured animals," said Ed Boggess, DNR Fish and Wildlife deputy director, who from 1991 to 2000 chaired the technical work group that is developing the best management practices. The guidelines are based on scientific field evaluations of more than 50 trapping systems conducted in 32 states. So far, the association has published best management practices for six species, with more expected in coming years.
The attention to educating trappers is a big change from years past, Opelia says. "When I was learning to trap, everything was a big secret. Trappers didn't want to share their knowledge because they were afraid of competition," he said. Today, the Minnesota Trappers Association, which Opelia joined in 1996, holds seminars and conventions for active trappers and teaches a trapper education course for young people.
"The idea today is to teach people how to trap ethically and avoid the stereotypes that give all trappers a bad name," Opelia says, as he expertly skins a beaver caught the day before. "In these rural areas, there's very little opposition to trapping. But we still think constantly about public relations. We're ethical and respectful of the animals. We follow the law and respect private property."
Minnesota's trapping seasons begin in late fall, as the weather cools and furbearer pelts begin to reach their prime. With thicker fur and more distinct colors, the pelts become more valuable to fur buyers.
Furs from Minnesota are usually sold to processors in Canada, where they are combined with furs from across North America and sold in large shipments to garment manufacturers in Europe, Russia, and China. Unlike voyageur-era trappers, who often sent nonprime beaver pelts to Europe to be made into felt for hats, today's trappers send only prime fur, which is used to make mittens, shawls, hats, trim for parkas, and sometimes fur coats. Average prices for pelts paid to Minnesota trappers in 2005 ranged from $1.51 for opossum to nearly $100 for bobcat, according to DNR records.
Fur prices, which have been stable or increasing in recent years, are set by overseas fashion trends, according to Jim Rognerud, a contractor for Fur Harvesters Auction Inc. "Lately demand for overseas furs has been picking up, and we're seeing some price increases," he said. "There's always demand for furs, but some years a certain style of fur is more in fashion and we see demand increase." Otter fur from North America continues to gain popularity in China, where it is prized for making coats and hats.
December, January, and February are the busiest months for trappers in Minnesota, where 14 species of furbearers are trapped. According to DNR records, muskrat are the most commonly trapped species with 72,000 taken in 2005. Other commonly trapped species include beaver (67,000 in 2005), raccoon (62,000), and mink (21,000).
Populations of Minnesota's commonly trapped species are high and there is no danger of overharvest, according to Michael DonCarlos, DNR wildlife research and policy manager. Regulations require trappers to check live-traps, such as foothold traps and snares set on land, a minimum of once each calendar day. They must check drowning or killing traps, such as conibear, at least once every three calendar days.
Minnesota trappers also take short- and long-tailed weasels, striped skunk, gray fox, coyote, otter, bobcat, fisher, and pine marten. The DNR sets limits on fisher, pine marten, bobcat, and otter to avoid overharvest and distribute the take among trappers. Trappers must register these species with the DNR before the fur is sold or within 48 hours after the season closes. Each year, trappers may register only four otter, five bobcats, and five fisher or pine marten combined. The DNR does not have a season limit for abundant species such as beaver, muskrat, raccoon, coyote, and fox.
"Changing forest management practices and unregulated harvest pushed fisher and pine marten populations to the brink of extirpation [from Minnesota] early in the previous century," DonCarlos said. "Through a combination of closed seasons, then highly regulated harvest during open seasons, fisher and pine marten populations dramatically recovered. Today, with continued regulated harvest, these populations are sustainable indefinitely."
Trapping attracts people who don't mind being alone, working long hours in the outdoors, and walking over miles of ice and woodland to check traps. Most trappers also work alone to process the hides.
But Gary Meis is working to change trappers' sense of isolation. Meis, president of the Minnesota Trappers Association, says trappers are in the midst of a renaissance, realizing they must reach out to show the nontrapping public that they are an ethical and necessary part of rural communities.
"If we're going to survive and prosper, we've got to start teaching," he says. "People have the wrong idea of what trapping is all about. We're not running around with big Jeremiah Johnson traps, mangling animals. Trapping is an ethical and humane way to control animal populations."
Since he became president of MTA in 1993, Meis says membership in the group has more than doubled, swelling by 1,100 members to more than 2,100 members today. Moreover, he says, the group has changed the way it does business. They've expanded the state trappers convention to attract new members by including children's activities and seminars for beginning trappers. Members now frequently demonstrate traps and show tanned furs to youth groups such as Boy and Girl scouts. The MTA also donates tanned fur hides to schools and educators for use in their classrooms.
But one of the group's biggest accomplishments, according to Meis, was getting legislation passed in 2005 that requires new trappers born after Dec. 31, 1989, to pass a certification course before buying a trapping license. The mandatory trapper education law takes effect March 1, 2007. MTA instructors teach the certification course, which is available free statewide. Earning certification requires 12 to 20 hours of study, a 100-question written test, and a field demonstration of various traps.
"Teaching youth the right way to trap is one of our most important responsibilities," Meis said. "By teaching young people about the ethics of trapping, we're inoculating the sport against the stereotypes portrayed by animal rights groups. It's important for kids to know the truth about trapping."
To learn more about the Minnesota Trappers Association, go to www.mntrappers.com.
Jason Abraham is a staff writer for the DNR divisions of Ecological Resources and Fish and Wildlife and frequently contributes to Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.