Mostly Trapping

Trapper numbers in state increase
Mar 9, 2019 17:36 ET

(Reprinted from above link)

NEWCASTLE — One side of a room in Rocky Rhoades’ shop is draped with a line of furs — a black bear from Canada, a bobcat from down the hill and a fox from the back of his property. On the other side of the room hangs a series of photos of bobcats sitting under trees — critters he photographed before releasing some from foot-hold traps.

On a frigid, blue-sky day in late February, in the hills above Newcastle, the part-time trapper fired up his side-by-side and headed down snow-covered two-track to check a short series of foot-hold traps and snares. The foot ones were intended for bobcats. The snares were for coyotes.

Rhoades is one of almost 2,300 trappers who applied for licenses in 2017 in Wyoming. While the practice might seem dated — something from the days of mountain men like William Henry Ashley and Kit Carson — trapper numbers in the Cowboy State have actually increased more than two-fold in the past 30 years, said Grant Frost, a senior wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Cheyenne.

At the same time, the number of fur-bearing animals caught has, overall, decreased. In part, Frost explained, many of the newer trappers are hobbyists, like Rhoades.

“It’s more of an opportunity to get out and do things during the winter, and if they can get something out of it, it’s just a bonus,” Frost said. “If they’re not catching many cats, they will say they’re done for the year and pull their traps.”

Rhoades is aware that trapping can be controversial. Dogs have been caught and killed in snares. Deer have been snared and wounded in foot traps. A wildlife advocacy group, Wyoming Untrapped, is entirely devoted to reforming the trade. But Rhoades also says it can be done with an awareness for the creatures and techniques.

Rhoades, 61, grew up in Newcastle before leaving for a career in the Air Force. He’s hunted and fished across North America, and started trapping five years ago when he saw a bobcat cross the highway near his house.

“It surprised me there were this many close to town. Turns out there are a lot of them,” he said. “My son in law trapped. I talked to him about it and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give you some pointers.’”

He now spends hours most evenings after work at the local post office and early weekend mornings checking a series of traps and snares sprinkled around properties near his country home. He’s looking for bobcats and coyotes mostly, though has caught the occasional rabbit, skunk and fox.

His bobcat traps are set under rock ledges, places where, if a cat is caught, it can curl up and hide from potential predators. He kills and keeps the large, adult males and releases most females or young. Regulations require trappers check their lines at least every 72 hours. He tries to get out every 48. Wyoming Untrapped hopes to change the rule to require checks every 24 hours.

While Rhoades does make some money from his pelts — he once sold a bobcat for $800 — it’s more the chance to be out in the forest in the winter. Last winter he didn’t catch anything. This winter he caught three bobcats and eight coyotes.

So Rhoades spends much of his time alone, ignoring the cold while noticing tracks and watching the forest.

For its part, Game and Fish says trapping is one of the only ways wildlife officials can keep track of certain species populations. It’s nearly impossible to survey numbers of bobcats, weasels, minx or martens, so they rely on reports from trappers to see if populations are rising or falling. Rhoades turns in jaws from bobcats to help with Game and Fish with research.

Rhoades figures he’ll retire from the post office later this year, and then maybe he’ll expand his lonely, chilly pursuit.