Being licensed is not the same as being a trapper
LANSING — Nearly 30,000 people buy a Michigan fur harvester license each year.
About half are trappers. The others are hunters of furbearing species, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. However, only about half of those who buy a license participate in any given year.
A furbearer license is required to trap or hunt animals that are traditionally taken for their fur. The license costs $15, but a trapper also needs a base license which costs $11.
Michigan license sales are stable year to year. The state isn’t alone in issuing more licenses than it has active trappers. In Wisconsin, roughly 20,000 people buy a trapping license each year, said Shawn Rossler, the furbearer specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. But only 40 to 50 percent of license holders actively trap in any given year.
“It’s a lot of work, and it’s hard work,” said Mark Earl, the public relations director for the Michigan Trappers and Predator Callers Association. “You really have to want to do it.”
Trapping requires a large time commitment, and Rossler said he believes that’s why people buy a license but do not end up trapping.
“You have to check those traps every 24 hours,” he said. “People buy a license with the intention of going out, but other things come up and they just can’t make the commitment that year.”
In Michigan, 17 species are considered furbearers, said Adam Bump, the furbearer specialist at the DNR.
They include muskrats, raccoons, beavers, minks, coyotes, red and grey foxes, bobcats, martens, fishers, otters, badgers, opossums, three species of weasels and skunks.
The season for trapping varies by species as well as location.
The bobcat, fisher and marten seasons began Dec. 1 in the Upper Peninsula. Bobcat trapping season for parts of the Lower Peninsula began Dec. 10.
It’s typical for the number of trappers to grow modestly when pelt prices are high and to fall slightly when prices are low, Bump said. Pelt prices change by species, so the impact varies from year to year.
Earl said it’s not about the money anyway. Rather, it’s about being in the woods connecting with nature and the animals he’s pursuing.
Trapping requires in-depth knowledge about the animal, Earl said. A hunter with a rifle can shoot a deer from 30 yards or 300 yards away. A trapper must get an animal to step on a 2-inch circle.
“Trappers really have to study their target species,” he said. “You have to have a lot of knowledge about where they’re going to be and what they’re going to do.”
Trapping also requires a great deal of skill, Earl said. Experienced trappers can catch only the animals they wish to trap and will avoid snagging unintentional species.
In the past, it would take time to become this proficient, he said. But in the last 15 to 20 years, things have changed in terms of the information available.
“In today’s age, people can get pretty good pretty fast,” Earl said. “There’s a lot of knowledge out there. You can get on YouTube and watch people do it, where 15 years ago you couldn’t have done that. You had to learn from somebody or maybe read it in a book.”
Historically, Bump said, trappers were fairly tight-lipped about their trade, particularly when it was a lucrative business.
“There was this view of competition,” he said. “If you told everybody about your good spots, somebody else could come and trap them. People tended to say, ‘I learned it on my own, I don’t want everyone to know my secrets.'”
In recent years, trappers have been hesitant to talk about trapping because it tends to be viewed negatively by the public, Bump said.
Some groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, oppose trapping.
“Millions of raccoons, coyotes, beavers and other animals are killed every year just for their fur,” said Christina Sewell, the assistant manager of fashion campaigns for the organization. “There’s no specifications on how the animals are killed once they’ve been trapped, and it’s very inhumane.”
Both Bump and Rossler were quick to point out that trapping is highly regulated, and people cannot simply go out and do whatever they please.
“There’s a lot of things that are different than I think the way people envision trapping,” Bump said. “The way we trap now, we have daily or 48-hour trap check laws. The traps are designed in ways to minimize the amount of trauma or injury to the animal.”
Trapping isn’t well-understood, said Geriann Albers, the furbearer biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
“Most of what the general public knows about trapping is from pop culture, such as the ‘Fox and the Hound’ where a man breaks his leg in a giant-toothed bear trap,” she said. “Modern trapping is different from those perceptions. We have humane trap research. Traps are smaller, better made, and have modifications like offset jaws, padding or extra wide jaws that make them more humane for the animal.”
Some trappers use the activity as a way to bond with their family.
“My brother traps too,” said Rossler. “So it’s something we can go out and do together.”
Others, such as Earl, pass the tradition on to their kids.
“I’ve taken my children trapping with me,” he said. “My daughter’s trapped muskrats. It’s something that can be passed down from a father to his children.”