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Grey Owl–trapper turned conservationist

In the 1930’s, a white man by the name of Grey Owl, living in the Canadian wilderness, made his living trapping. He married an Iroquois woman named Anahareo.  He had no remorse about his profession until one day he killed a mother beaver leaving two young kits. As he was about to raise his gun to shoot them, Anahareo intervened. “Let us save them,” she cried.  “it is up to us, after what we’ve done.”  And so began Grey Owl’s transformation.

Grey Owl and beaver kit

Beavers are among the 2% of land mammals that live in social groups.  His beaver kits quickly became part of his family.  He described how they were like children–playful, intelligent, mischievous, and hungry for affection.  They liked to sleep against their pillows, cuddle with him and Anahareo, and were extremely sensitive to the moods of their human caretakers.

Grey Owl began to understand those animals which he previously sought to only kill for their pelts.  He vowed to give up trapping altogether, though he didn’t take this lightly as it was his sole means of livelihood being a mountain man.

A number of incidents had contributed to this line of thought.  About the first of these was the sight of a mother beaver nursing one of her kittens whilst fast by one foot in a trap.  She was moaning with pain, yet when I liberated her, minus a foot, she waited nearby for the tardy and inquisitive kitten, seeming by her actions to realize that she had nothing to fear from me….The spectacle of a crippled beaver with only one hind leg and three stumps, doing his best to carry on, had moved me to put him out of his misery…I was getting sick of the constant butchery…but this had not, however, prevented me from going on to the next lodge, and setting my traps as carefully as ever; and like many another good business man I had justified myself…they had seemed to me to be just foolish dupes who took my lures, beasts that were put on earth for my convenience, dumb brutes who didn’t know the difference.

And now had come these small and willing captives, with their almost child-like intimacies and murmurings of affection…they seemed to be almost like little folk from some other planet, whose language we could not yet quite understand.  To kill such creatures seemed monstrous.

Grey Owl was not an educated man.  His winter with Anahareo and the two beaver kits was long and desolate, deep in the wooded backcountry of Canada in a one room cabin which they’d quickly built during a November snowstorm. Swearing off trapping, Grey Owl no longer had any means to pay off his debts accrued in buying supplies for winter.  He had the idea to write an article on the beaver kits and his experiences as a woodsman.  He walked 40 miles to town in January, dropped the article in the mail off to a prestigious English magazine, and so began his writing and speaking career to save the beavers of Canada.

Trappers had outtrapped Canada; loggers had cut down large swaths of forest. Things didn’t look good for the beavers of Canada in the 1930s.  Yet Grey Owl continued to write and speak and gained enough notoriety that the Government of Canada approached him about making a short silent, film with his beavers.  

Soon the Canadian Government had found a new home for Grey Owl and his beavers where trapping and logging was illegal.  At Prince Albert National Park, a new cabin for Grey Owl became his permanent home.  The cabin can be visited today.  Grey Owl had turned from avid trapper to a prominent and vocal conservationist for wildlife and wildlands.  You can see a very interesting 9 minute documentary here and another a narrated one here in the Canadian archives.

In 1999 David Attenborough directed a film called Grey Owl, starring Pierce Brosnan. Attenborough as a boy had seen Grey Owl speak, and was greatly affected, perhaps even to the point of influencing his future profession.

Grey Owl’s book Pilgrims of the Wild chronicles the journey I’ve described above. A wonderful read.

We need to re-examine our views on beavers.  We can work with beavers, using them as a tool to:

  1.  store water and off-set some of the problems we face with a warming climate and declining water sources
  2. restore salmon and trout populations
  3. create good habitat for our declining moose populations due to a warming climate
  4. create wetland habitats for songbirds and other wildlife, especially as the climate warms.
  5. repair stream incision

Here are some good, easy-to-read references on line.  As well as some short talks by experts.

  1. Will Harling, director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, “we need to encourage beavers to build dams and to increase fish habitat where it’s feasible.”
  2. Working together to restore beavers to fight climate change
  3. This is a very interesting article how to channel beavers to work for us in designs that we want.


Filling out the dialogue on trapping

Last week in Casper, a family was walking their three St. Bernard dogs in a public area within a mile from their home.  The dogs were legally off-lease, and under voice command, but the smell of baited traps drew all three of them into the bush where snares choked them to death.  The family and their kids tried desperately to loosen the cables that constitutes a snare trap, but lacking wire cutters, the dogs died within minutes.

Because more people are using public lands to recreate, more and more dogs are being caught in traps placed near trails and roads.  These and other incidents have produced a groundswell of outrage which is growing across the West.  Organizations like Wyoming Untrapped and Footloose Montana  have sprung up to answer this need. Bobcat trapping around the perimeter of Joshua Tree National Park prompted California to establish the Bobcat Protection Act of 2013 banning trapping around national and state parks and other wildlife preserves.

Most of the conversation in the public or with Game Agencies has centered around protecting dogs and humans recreating on public lands.  This discussion includes new measures such as closures and set-backs. It’s an achievable goal–one that even most Trapping Organizations would agree to.  This is a fine first step.  In fact, my own dog was caught in a trap on a public road in Utah; the baited leg-hold trap was placed on a highly used road and covered with dirt, had no signage, and Koda was 12 feet from me.  Fortunately for Koda, I’d taught myself previously how to release these traps.

See the trap to the right of Koda.  That is the spot it was in, about one foot off the road, covered with dirt and no signage

See the leg-hold trap to the right of Koda. That is the spot it was in, about one foot off the road, covered with dirt and no signage

This trapper had set leg-holds all along the roadside for several miles, hoping to catch coyotes.  $50 for the pelt and another $50 incentive thanks to the Utah legislature that set aside several million dollars of taxpayer’s money to kill coyotes.

All trappers must have their ID or name on their trap.  Look for it and write it down in case it was illegally placed

All trappers must have their ID or name on their trap. Look for it and write it down in case it was illegally placed

But what’s at the heart of all this?   I’ve written about this before, back in a 2011 post. Demand in Russia and China for fur has sky-rocketed.  Current prices for ‘Lynx Cat’ [Bobcats] on the world market are between $400-$1150/pelt!  And this year was a ‘down’ market due to warmer winters in those two countries. (Question:  Will climate change quell the trapping industry?) With that incentive, every Tom,Dick, and Harry is out there setting traps.  And the ethics among these newcomers is low. 19th century laws that favor trappers are still on the books in most states [i.e. do not touch a trap or you will receive a ticket.  In Utah it’s $500. In Wyoming $250].

I haven't seen a bobcat in years since my area has been heavily trapped.  This photo taken 4 years ago in front of my home

I haven’t seen a bobcat in years since my area has been heavily trapped. This photo taken 4 years ago in front of my home

The critical conversation we need to have about trapping includes some of these points:

  • Fur prices world wide are driving the increase in trapping.
  • We are selling our wildlife overseas!  Its illegal to sell the meat of any wild animal, yet we can sell their pelts?  Wildlife are in the public trust.  Selling wildlife–even pelts–to other countries for individual profit takes away from another individual’s right to see wildlife and appreciate them.
  • Trapping is indiscriminate.  ‘Non-target’ animals are killed every year.  During the 2011/2012 Idaho wolf trapping season, for example, 246 non-target species were trapped, including deer, moose, dogs, raptors, lions, and 21 endangered fishers.  In Wyoming, some animals have trapping seasons, yet others, like coyotes, can be trapped year-round on public lands.
  • People are no longer trapping for food, but for personal profit.  We no longer live in the 19th century.  Attitudes towards wildlife has changed.
  • Finally, trapping is cruel.  Animals are not only killed, but maimed and crippled.  Many suffer for days in traps.  Trapping, unlike hunting, is not fair chase. It’s time to put an end to trapping altogether.

This summer I was hiking along the flats 1000′ feet above the Clark’s Fork Canyon.  Its a wet area, where all the moisture drains from the mountains above, funneling through the limestone walls to the river below.  Old beaver dams are tucked among the overgrown forest of spruce and fir–ancient dams because there are no longer beavers here.

View of the river from the flats above where old beaver ponds are

View of the river from the flats above where old beaver ponds are

Hundreds of years ago mountain men came to these lands and trapped the beavers out, their furs sent to Europe for felt hats.  Beavers were estimated at around 600 million before the Europeans arrived.  Almost exterminated by 1900.  Due to conservation efforts, beaver numbers in North America stand around 6-12 million today.  I’ve never seen a beaver dam in these mountains.  Just last year there was a big fuss about a beaver dam spotted south of Cooke City along the Clark’s Fork.

Selling our wildlife…these are old lessons.  Let’s not have to re-learn them again.




I am not an ‘animal rights activist’, but I find the business of trapping for fur/money disgusting.  Hunting or trapping for food and survival is one thing. Hunting for trophy and trapping for the almighty dollar disregards not the ‘rights’ of an animal, but the fact that animals are conscious beings, not just some commodity.

Yesterday I ran into two trappers going out to check their American Marten traps.  I asked if I could accompany them.  They were nice guys and frankly they were trapping in a most humane way.  The type of trap they used, called a conibear, instantly kills the animal when it attempts to get the bait (a piece of beaver meat is what they used).  They set their trap far away from the road or where people might venture.  They used a trap that sits on a pole inclined against a tree; that way the Marten has to climb the pole.  In addition, their trap was inside a box too small for a lynx, a cat on the endangered species list.  We hiked up through deep snow into the trees.  I was glad nothing was in the trap, although they’d caught seven during the season,which ends tomorrow.

I asked these guys how much they were getting for a pelt.  $50 was their answer.  “Bobcats are going for $500” they volunteered.  “What drives the prices?” I asked.  “The markets mainly in China and Russia, depending upon whether their economy is up or down.”   $50 or $500, it just amazes me people are still willing to trade a life for money.

Western Fur States auction in Montana

Bobcat pelts worth $500/each

Although these trappers trapped humanely, many trappers use a leg hold type trap, which does not kill the animal but restrains it.  Animals have been known, like the movie ‘127 hours‘, to chew their leg off to get out of the trap.  Trappers are supposed to check them every three days (my God! that means an animal might be suffering in there for days!)  but many just check them weekly or so.  I have to watch my dog as we hike.  The bait they use for bobcats, rabbit plus lots of scent, is a mighty strong attractant for a dog.  Those traps are covered over by brush or snow, not even visible to me.  If he were to step in one, or even if I were, I’d never be able to open them up as they require a lot of force.  Most probably, they’d break his leg.

Trapping laws in Wyoming are still essentially the same as they’ve been for over 100 years.  If you touch a trappers set-up, you can go to jail or be fined.  If you even kill an animal suffering in a trapper’s trap, you are breaking the law.  Trapping itself is an antiquated, outdated ‘sport’.

Trappers will tell you that their job is essential to the ‘balance of nature’.  If they didn’t trap, then these animals would overpopulate and become a nuisance–animal control basically.  This, of course, is a ridiculous argument.  Nuisance animals are only a nuisance because we humans declare it so.  Nature is able to balance things out through natural cycles.  Except, of course, for us humans. There are 8 billion people on this planet, a totally out of control species.

I do have to admire these trappers in many ways:  they know their animal and understand how to trap them.  Trapping is essentially a lot harder than hunting.  You have to outsmart the animals, and animals are very smart.  I have been trying all winter to get my trail camera to photograph a bobcat and although I’ve gotten the bobcat to take the bait, no photo yet.

In todays’ world of diminishing wildlife, here are the gross receipts they’ve been reduced to for their pelts:

Marten – $35.85

Beaver – $14.41

Coyotes – $44.83

Bobcats – $572.21

Raccoon – $18.92.

Badger – $25.50

Red Fox – $31.22

Mink – $11.90

Otter – $46.63

Skunk – $7.80

Ermine – $2.31

Porcupine guard hair – $22.82

Beaver castor – $44.23

Isn’t it time we start thinking differently.  So many species have been on the brink of extinction due to fashion.  There are plenty of people but not many animals left.