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Local fur trapper pursues a dying way of life

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Tennessee trapping laws

Traps must be marked with owner’s name.

Traps must be checked for animals every 36 hours.

You must have written permission to trap on other people’s property.

Source: Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

State fur trapper organizations

Tennessee Free Trappers Association: www.angelfire.com/ri/rivercounties/tnadco.html

Tennessee Fur Harvesters Association: www.tfhaonline.net/

 

Wilson County trapper Bruce Carr stands in his fur shed where the pelts of foxes, coyotes, raccoons, mink and otter dry before they are taken to market.

Ken Beck/The Wilson Post

Fur prices

Results at the Tennessee Fur Harvesters Association Crossville Fur Sale on Feb. 6, 2010

Species, total number of pelts, average price

Finished raccoon, 137, $5.89

Finished beaver, 50, $10.32

Coyote, 43, $6.29

Bobcat, 22, $32.81

Red fox, 23, $11.78

Grey fox, 20, $12.95

Otter, 5, $17.60

Muskrat, 114, $3.67

Mink, 3, $1.58

Skunk, 16, $1.35

Opossum, 59, $.73

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

Bruce Carr is one of a vanishing breed of men. He’s a fur trapper.

With his annual $136 sportsman license, the same one that grants him the right to fish and hunt, he seeks fur-bearing creatures of the wild. On a frigid February day, the pelts of foxes, raccoons, coyotes, mink and otter hang on wire stretchers in his fur shed.

“I thoroughly enjoy the trapping,” said Carr, 51, a machinist-tool maker by trade and cattle farmer. “The enjoyment comes from pitting my skill and ability against theirs. I rode on the four-wheeler today for 30 cold minutes (in sub-freezing temperatures). I didn’t catch nothing. 

“I go every day, rain or shine or snow. If I got traps out, I feel the obligation to check ’em each day,” said the Army veteran, a director of the National Trappers Association and an educational assistant with the Tennessee Free Trappers Association.

He likens himself to the mountain men who opened up the American trails into the West in the early 1800s, such as Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, Joseph Walker and others, men who trapped beaver and other wild animals.

“I’m a descendant of the mountain men but just born 150 to 200 years too late,” Carr said. “I’m a fourth-generation trapper and fur buyer. Both of my grandfathers were trappers, and one was a fur buyer. I grew up, when I was out of school on break, spending two weeks at a time with my grandfather, Allen Adams of Lafayette, trapping and fur buying. It kept me out of trouble.”

Carr has two sons that trapped some with him when they were younger, but neither of them trap today.

For better or for worse, Tennessee trappers are on the decline. Pelt prices peaked in 1979 when there were more than 4,000 commercial trappers. Today, there may be 200 to 250 trappers, approximately 95 percent fewer than 30 years ago.

“It’s a dying breed, a dying art. There are probably not more than two dozen men fur trapping in this county at any one time,” said Jim Hooper, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) game warden for Wilson County for the past 22 years. “There’s not a lot of older guys left that can pass it on.

“It’s one of those things that still goes on but nothing like it was back in the ’60s and ’70s. It will vanish except for certain pockets of people,” Hooper said. “Southern furs just are not worth that much money. It just doesn’t get as prime as northern market. The skills of a trapper I don’t think will ever be completely gone, but as far as a guy who goes out and runs a trap line here in a metro area, over time that will cease to exist.”

Trapping is definitely on the downswing as it finds itself under the guarded eye of animal rights organizations which despise the use traps, whether steel or rubber-jawed, due to the suffering they inflict on animals.

Gray Anderson, furbearer program coordinator with the TWRA, sees the positive side of trapping.

“Trapping in general is very good. There are no top predators anymore. We’ve lost many of them. The wolves and cougar that would have roamed Tennessee are gone, so there is nothing to keep them (wild animals) in check,” Anderson said.

“All populations are cyclical, and something keeps the population in check. Right now a lot of raccoons, opossums and skunks don’t have a top predator to keep them in check. That’s where the trappers really keep the populations in a positive place. What trappers do in general are very positive for the agency,” Anderson said. “Our trappers have done a lot of national and international research and methodology and learning about new traps and overall doing a good job of representing themselves as ethical, and they play a fundamental part of wildlife management in the state.”

Fur harvester Carr defends his part-time job saying, “If animals aren’t caught and not controlled, nature will step in, and disease and starvation will whittle down the population. Trapping is by far a better way of controlling and preventing diseases such as rabies and mange where there is a high population. If we don’t help control them, then Mother Nature will.”

His farmhouse between Lebanon and Watertown is close to 100 years old. This afternoon a person can stand on the front porch and spy nothing but snow-covered hills and vales of Wilson County. The farmer-trapper wears camouflage shirt and pants with tennis shoes and sits in his living room, heated with a wood-burning stove, and smokes Kool cigarettes as he discusses his passion. He began trapping at the age of 8.

“I caught mink around the houses of Watertown and below the bridge on Main Street in Round Lick Creek,” said Carr, who also trapped Smith Fork Creek and areas around Statesville and Cottage Home as a youth.

“Growing up around the farm there’s not much money to be made, so that’s how I made my spending money when I was in school,” he said of the time he did water trapping going after mink, muskrat and raccoons.

Once he moved to the farm in 1985, he began dry land trapping fox, coyote, bobcat, skunk and possum. These days he follows his trap lines from his four-wheeled ATV, saying, “The older I get, the easier it makes it. I sure cover a whole lot more ground.

“I’m after coyote and bobcat but like to control the number of coons on the place. Without controlling them, they eat up our garden. I’ve got about 60 coons on this place the past three years on our 300-acre farm. The way I look at it, they are a renewable source. I can catch up to 16 each year without hurting myself.

“As for coyotes, I’d catch every one if I could. They’re kind of the unwanted stepchild of the area. Anywhere there are deer and turkey, there are bobcats and coyotes. Coyotes are coming into Nashville and getting people’s pet dogs and cats. The four coyotes in the fur shed, I caught on my own farm,” said Carr, who has trapped strictly on his property or farms belonging to relatives in recent years. 

“The more you understand their traits and habits, the better trapper you’ll be. Coyote and fox are the craftiest of the bunch. The rest seem kind of dumb compared to those two,” he said.

Most of the time he traps in Macon County with his cousin Jackie Adams of Westmoreland. They generally meet at first light. For bait they bring a bucket filled with small bottles of gland lures (strong animal scents). “It will bring water to your eyes for sure,” Carr said of the scent lures.

He utilizes foothold traps, such as a rubber-jawed trap which is used on top of the ground, steel-jawed traps which can be used in holes 12 inches deep or on a trapper’s own property, and long-spring traps for use in water.

“I use a dirt hole, 4 inches in diameter. I dig the hole 6 to 8 inches deep at a 45-degree angle. For coyotes I use coyote gland lure in the bottom of the hole,” Carr said. “Six inches away from the hole I dig a spot as large as the trap and set the trap. I use coffee filter paper over the trigger or the pan and then sift dirt on top and anchor the trap with a drag.”

When an animal goes for the bait and touches the trigger, the trap snaps shut on its paw. Most are alive in the trap when the trappers return. Carr dispatches them with a .22 pistol.

In an average week, Carr and his cousin will cover 300 acres. The trappers bring the catch back to their fur sheds where the animals are skinned, fleshed and then put on stretchers to hang and dry for three or four days. Now the furs are ready to sell.

The Tennessee Free Trappers holds three or four fur auctions each year as does the Tennessee Fur Harvesters Association. A fur auction will be held 9 a.m. Saturday at the Alexandria Fairgrounds in DeKalb County, as trappers sell their pelts to fur buyers. He anticipates a crowd of 200 to 400.    

Carr said that most of the fur caught in the United States goes overseas. “Russia and China are the primary fur buyers because of the cold weather. The furs are used for coats and hats.”

Few trappers seem to do it for profit, and the money is certainly not what it once was for furs. “I’m not making no money. The price of furs is so cheap now. Fur pays the same price now as it did 30 years ago,” Carr said. “For me it’s a hobby. I just enjoy doing it. On the farm last year, we had the garden and did not have problems with coons.”

Carr said there are several reasons that trapping is decreasing: “If you don’t own your own property, it’s hard to get permission, and the cost of equipment keeps going up (a dozen steel-jawed traps cost $90, a dozen rubber-jawed traps cost $260) as the prices go down.”

The TWRA’s Anderson mentioned another reason.

“It’s mostly happening in hunting and fishing, and that’s the loss of mentors,” Anderson said. “If you lose a generation, it’s really hard to pick it up. It’s not being passed on to the youth. The big thing, especially with trapping, is that it is so complex with trapping, preparing the fur and getting to market. So many steps make it quite complex.”

“When I started out, I had both my grandfathers helping me. But most trappers don’t talk about how they set their traps. They keep it a big secret,” Carr said. “I respect the standpoint of friends of animals, but, if not controlled, disease will get a lot of these animals and that’s far worse.”

Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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