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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3210.