I often hear negative opinions* on trapping whenever the topic is brought up with someone from outside the northern regions (Alaska and Canada). Living in the wilderness offers a lifestyle where one sees the direct result of their actions and bears the consequences, both positive and negative. Animals are killed by those consuming them, wood is chopped by those constructing and burning it and so on. In urban centers, these tasks are often outsourced, making the residents a passive recipient of goods and services. It is easy to cast blame or scorn on the wilderness dweller for their actions from this vantage as the urban dweller perceives no ill effects in their own living. Their effects are out of sight, therefore out of mind. But through living, each of us has an impact on the planet. Take driving a car. A practice not limited to the urban environment but one that will support my premise anyways. By driving a car one is involved in a whole set of actions that is detrimental to the planet. Rare minerals and metals must be mined to create the vehicle. Oil must be used to fuel the car (or any non-renewable resource if you are using an electric vehicle). And of course, by driving you are polluting the atmosphere. All of which contribute to the displacement of wildlife and the degradation of air and water quality. The same can be said for residential homes, commercial services and store bought food to name a few other examples.
The above paragraph is not meant to ridicule the urban dweller, but is made in hopes of enlightening them to the wilderness way of life. I am not without fault. I purchase goods from afar, drive a car, fly in planes and purchase electronics with rare minerals in them. But when I can, I try to take action and source goods that let me see the end result. Hence the reason why I burn wood, hunt animals, fish, create my own power and later this winter, likely run a trap line.
Since I last shared my thoughts, I have had practical experience that has further influenced my thinking on the topic. This past summer, I helped out on a University of Alaska Fairbanks research project studying snowshoe hares and lynx. The field work for this study involved the live capture of both animals in an effort to take measurements, determine population size and/or affix gps collars. In addition to this research work, I also had my own trap line (albeit only featuring two traps), attempting to catch arctic ground squirrels.
The means for both of these efforts were nothing outside the ordinary. For the arctic ground squirrel I used a steel number 1 trap (a smaller version of the trap shown above). These traps are meant for smaller furbearers such as marten or red fox. For the research work, the methods were largely the same, but measures were taken to following protocols as set by a university ethical board. The idea was to capture and handle the animals with the least harm possible. For the snowshoe hare this was easy. An rectangular cage trap was used with bait being placed in the back (apples, carrots, and/or alf alfa squares). The bunnies stepped on the treadle as they made their way to the food, shutting the cage door behind them. The lynx also had a cage trap that operated under the same principle (but much larger in size). Steel foot spring traps (pictured above) were also used to catch lynx, often modified to soften the blow upon closure by the addition of electrical tape or padding around the jaws.
Over the course of the summer, we caught hundreds of snowshoe hares and two lynx. The bycatch found in the hare traps was minimal to non-existent. On rare occasions, a red squirrel or a gray jay would be found inside and would be released. Although the cage trap minimizes injuries or death, it does not eliminate it. Bears, wolves and/or lynx would occasionally come across traps with hares inside, rolling and damaging the cage. On a couple occasions, the bunnies inside were injured and had to be killed. There were also instances where the bunnies died within the trap, often due to unknown causes. Traps were never left unattended for more than 24 hours and each one had food for the animals. Yet, due to exposure, thirst, hunger or some other, the hares perished. Nonetheless, the cage traps proved very effective and sustained injury or loss of life was minimal.
In our attempts to catch lynx, we also used cage traps, which occasionally caught snowshoe hares or birds, but to no ill effect. On the other hand, the steel spring traps also caught snowshoe hares, which often resulted in the jaws of the trap breaking one or more of the hare’s legs. This happened on a regular basis and ending the hares’ lives was not easy on anyone. With regards to lynx, ill effects were minimal. The padding on the jaws seemed to make for a safer catch, but there were a couple instances where the trap may have broken a toe on the caught foot. The trouble with some of the lynx is that they circled back to the traps in which they were caught, or others becoming caught again, increasing the chance for injury.
Trapping ground squirrels was more displeasing as I related elsewhere. I caught four animals in traps, two of which were ground squirrels. On one occasion, I came across a snowshoe hare that was alive but impaired. There was no visible damage, but something was wrong. I decided to kill the hare. On another occasion, I was checking traps when I found a least weasel. Three of its legs were ensnared by the trap and it seemed to be barely alive. I killed the weasel as well. Both events did not sit well with me then, and do not sit well with me now as I write this. Needlessly killing animals is a terrible feeling, no matter the size.
As one may gather from the thoughts above, I have formed a stronger stance on trapping. I am not opposed to the practice, but do not like the use of steel traps, at least for my own use. The bycatch and inherent damage to other animals is something that I do not wish to bear. Today, the most common means of trapping is through the use of the steel spring trap. However, native peoples in the past operated without steel. Deadfall traps and snares were most commonly used, with both typically being made from wood or sinew. There is still a risk with snare traps of catching the wrong animal. Talk to any longtime trapper in Alaska and you will most likely hear a story of a time a moose became entangled in a wolf snare. But with proper placement, this effect is minimized. Unlike the steel trap, where caught animals can suffer a broken leg, toes or foot (through the trap or their own doing), the use of deadfalls and snares kills the animals in a quick manner, therein reducing the amount of suffering.
If suffering is reduced, why isn’t this practice more widespread? Namely, because setting spring traps takes less time than setting deadfalls and has a higher success rate than snares. The disappearance of the use of snares and deadfalls is no different than any other case of disuse in the north. It is why people favor snowmachines over dog teams and chainsaws over a cross cut saw and an ax. An ethos of more, more, more and as quick as you can permeates into the wilderness life just as elsewhere. Coupled with a way to reduce physical labor, the practices are irresistible. I may be stubborn, but I find value in the old way of doing things. Often, tools or practices are time tested and proven for hundreds if not thousands of years. For now, I will continue to attempt to follow the old way, the much slower way, using deadfalls and snares. I won’t have as many traps as most and I likely won’t catch as many animals but that’s OK. As stated elsewhere, taking an animal’s life is not something which I take lightly. And I will continue to hold myself to that standard going forward.
*If anything in this piece makes you feel strongly or you have your own thoughts, please share in the comments below. My thoughts on the topic are constantly evolving.