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Carrying on a Vermont Trapping Tradition

  • Marcus Harrington, 16, pulls on a rubber glove before reaching under ice to retrieve a muskrat trap near the Middle Branch of the White River in East Bethel, Vt. Sunday, December 11, 2016. Harrington's father Mark, right, drove him around to check his traps on the cold morning. "It used to be that when you got laid off, or construction work dried up in the fall, this is what they would do," said Mark Harrington. Now, with a drop in fur prices, people trap for the love of being in the outdoors and to pass the skills down through the generations, he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Marcus Harrington, 16, places a trap on the bank of the Middle Branch of the White River in East Bethel, Vt. before carefully covering it with sand hoping to catch a mink Sunday, December 11, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Marcus Harrington, left, and Colby Washburn, right, watch as fur buyers, trappers, wildlife biologists and Fish And Wildlife enforcement officers look over lots of fur laid out in the Whitcomb High School gym in Bethel, Vt., before the Vermont Trappers Association's annual spring fur auction at Whitcomb High School in Bethel, Vt., Saturday, March 18, 2017. "It requires a great deal of focus and commitment from these guys to follow the rules," said Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Keith Gallant, not pictured, of youth learning to trap. "That's really rare in our young people today." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The pelt of a coyote trapped by Colby Washburn and Marcus Harrington sits for viewing by fur buyers at the The Vermont Trappers Association fur auction at Whitcomb High School in Bethel, Vt., Saturday, March 18, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kyle Clark, 8, of Ferrisburgh, helps identify the sex and age of muskrats as they are recorded by Mary Beth Adler, a technician for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife furbearer program, before the annual spring fur auction at Whitcomb High School in Bethel, Vt., Saturday, March 18, 2017. The data is used to track trends in the animal harvest and determine the health of the population of the species. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kyle Clark, 8, of Ferrisburgh, listens as auctioneer Chuck Eaton, left, elicits bids from fur buyers on his beaver pelts held by his mentor Pete Lossmann, of Bristol, right, during the Vermont Trappers Association spring fur auction at Whitcomb High School in Bethel, Vt., Saturday, March 18, 2017. Clark has been learning from Lossmann for three years and this year he trapped four coyotes, five beaver and two racoons during about a week of trapping. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After selling their furs at the Vermont Trappers Association fur auction, Colby Washburn holds out a check for their earnings to Marcus Harrington at Whitcomb High School in Bethel, Vt., Saturday, March 18, 2017. For several weeks last fall, the pair met early in the morning to check their traps before school at Whitcomb, ultimately trapping, skinning and preparing five racoons, two muskrats, and one coyote for sale. They earned $29.60 for their efforts and said their earnings would go toward bait and traps for next year's trapping season. Harrington's sister Jenna Harrington, 18, is at right. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A beaver pauses on ice at the edge of the Middle Branch of the White River in East Bethel, Vt., Tuesday, December 13, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



STORY BY AIMEE CARUSO
Saturday, March 25, 2017

Bethel — When they first started trapping, friends Marcus Harrington and Colby Washburn worked separately and didn’t catch much. But last year they teamed up, meeting in the pre-dawn hours to check their traps. Over the course of a few weeks they caught eight animals.

“We would like to be catching 25 to 30 a year, but it’s a start,” Washburn said. “We’re still learning.”

Earlier this month, the Whitcomb Junior/Senior High School students attended the Vermont Trappers Association fur auction. Prices aren’t what they once were; their pelts brought in just under $30. But the prospect of making a sale isn’t what motivates them.

“It’s the thought of outsmarting the animals,” said Washburn, 16. “They live in the outdoors, and we’re visitors.”

Their shared interest makes the teenagers a bit of a rarity.

School, sports and online offerings are all competing for young people’s attention, said Chris Bernier, a wildlife biologist with the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department. And trapping is a time-consuming, equipment-intensive activity.

But probably the biggest hurdle facing novice trappers is the learning curve, he said. “Trapping requires a substantial amount of skill and expertise and knowledge.”

The 13 fur-bearing mammals that can be trapped in Vermont have diverse habitats, and are covered by a number of different state regulations. And as trapping declines in popularity, fewer people are available to serve as mentors.

In the 1980s, it was common to sell 3,000 licenses a year in Vermont, Bernier said. But recently, that number has plummeted, fluctuating between 581 and 968 during the past decade. Of those who buy licenses, roughly half actually trap. 

So, what’s the draw?

“An absolute love of being outdoors and immersing themselves in the habitats of these animals,” Bernier said. “In order to be successful, you’ve got to become an expert on the habitat and the animals, and people take pride in that. It’s not easy.”

Such understanding brings a desire to conserve the animals and land, he said. “When we separate ourselves (from the landscape), that desire is lost.”

Information provided by trappers influences wildlife management and policy making. People who trap bobcats, otters and fisher cats must turn over the carcasses to Fish and Wildlife for study. The addition of river otter and bobcat to the state’s wildlife action plan was due primarily to that research, Bernier said. 

An annual survey of Vermont trappers includes the “catch per unit of effort index,” which helps researchers track population changes in various species across the state. Currently, participation is optional, but a proposal in front of the Fish and Wildlife board would make it mandatory. The Vermont Trappers Association supports the move.

In the three years he’s been trapping, Washburn’s met with some disapproval.

“There are a lot of people that kind of understand it but they feel it is cruel to the animal,” he said. That’s not how he sees it.

The law requires checking the traps every 24 hours, and most of the catches happen late at night or in the early morning, “so they haven’t been sitting long,” he said.

Washburn tries his hardest to change people’s minds about trapping, with little success, he said. “When they are that point they don’t really budge. It’s kind of personal preference.”

While he and Harrington come from families that hunt, they each got into trapping on their own.

“My grandpa and great uncle were quite well known” in the area for trapping, said Harrington, a sophomore. “I want to carry on the name a little bit.”

This year, he and Washburn increased their efforts, making preparations in advance. That included tracking down muskrat houses which, to the uninitiated eye, resemble “a bunch of pushed up weeds,” he said. 

Like Washburn, he’s taken to trapping.

“I think it's fun. You get to outsmart animals, and sometimes they outsmart you,” Harrington said, and then rethought that last part.

“Most of the time,” he added.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.