BARNUM, MINN. – They came by the hundreds to this sleepy little town, which bills itself as the “Gateway to the North Woods.”
They were drawn here by a collective passion for trapping fur-bearing animals. Many drove from faraway Minnesota points to be among allies in a world of increasing enemies of their sport. It was the summer convention of the Minnesota Trappers Association (MTA), held earlier this month on the Carlton County Fairgrounds.
People are rarely neutral about trapping. In a 21st century society that seems to delight in wildly dividing itself on a variety of topics, this sport is often on that list. You are either pro or con trapping, and often rabidly so.
The current flash point is a relatively new body trap, the Conibear 220. Because this trap is capable of killing a bird dog, some hunters who, in the past, were outdoor kindred spirits with trappers have turned against them. More about that in a minute.
The MTA’s mission is to perpetuate the nation’s oldest industry, fur trading. It’s a long and rich heritage in Minnesota dating to 1784 when the Northwest Fur Company opened a trading post not far from Barnum at Pine City. You can still visit that post and learn about old-time trapping.
You can also learn about today’s trappers at an MTA convention. The tone of their general meeting and the quiet conversations at the vendor booths evoke a sense that these people are well organized and very capable of preserving the trapping heritage. For some here, trapping is more a for-profit business than a hobby. Indeed, when the harvest is good and fur prices are high, pelts become what they were called in the 18th century — soft gold.
Spurring the current anti-trapping movement is the growing popularity of a body-gripping device, specifically the Conibear 220. It’s a bread-box-size trap featuring strong steel wire, springs and a four-way trigger. It’s very efficient for badgers, raccoons, beavers, opossums and skunks.
The smoldering controversy that body-gripping traps have wrought is sparked to rage — particularly among bird hunters concerned for their beloved hunting dogs — by recent headlines such as “DNR To Allow Trapping On Walk-in Hunting Land.’’
Here’s what Bob Welsh, DNR habitat program manager, says about that:
“The DNR does not allow trapping on walk-in lands. The decision to allow or forbid trapping on walk-in plots is entirely up to the discretion of the landowner. We provide for small game hunting only.”
But if you do hunt walk-in land — or anywhere for that matter — where trapping is allowed, what’s the risk?
MTA metro district director Jon Longfellow, both an ardent trapper and a bird hunter, says he is not overly concerned about traps when he and his German wirehaired pointer are afield.
“When you put a hard-running bird dog on the ground, there are risk factors. There are barbed-wire fences, sharp sticks, badger holes and other dangers capable of hurting your dog. I put traps in that same risk basket,” Longfellow said.
To lower the dog-in-body-trap risk, the MTA worked with the Legislature on language that restricts the open placement of Conibear devices on public land. They must be recessed on the ground or elevated above ground. Read the details of this new law on page 48 of the DNR’s 2014 Hunting and Trapping Regulations Handbook.
The facts about traps and their relatively low risk to dogs are comforting. In thousands of bird hunting days afield since October 2012 in Minnesota, 11 dogs were reportedly killed by fur-bearing traps, according to the DNR. (Some bird hunters and their groups say the number is considerably higher.)
What if your bird dog is caught in a body-gripping trap? Knowing how to quickly open the trap could be a lifesaver, and the MTA has developed a kit to facilitate the quick release of the Conibear traps.
Actually, “kit’’ might be an overstatement. It’s a Ziploc bag with two stout, plastic zip strips and concise instructions, including photos, for releasing a dog quickly.
If you are concerned about your dog and body traps, you can get one of these kits free by e-mailing MTA President Shawn Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But be forewarned: Familiarize yourself with the instructions before you toss the kit in the game bag of your hunting coat. A dog first-aid kit and knowing the phone number of a veterinarian where you’ll be hunting are also good insurance policies against the dangers hunting dogs face.
“We have handed out many hundreds of our release kits to hunters; in fact the idea has gone national,” Longfellow said. “We use the kits at the Game Fair and at Pheasants Forever events as an icebreaker in conversations with hunters about keeping dogs safe and keeping peace in the hunter/trapper family.”
Trappers are often wary about being quoted by media types. So to paraphrase an assertion made in the shade of the Carlton County Fairgrounds pavilion to this writer by a trapper from the Windom/Butterfield area:
“I’ve set over 100 body-gripping traps for several seasons, and I’ve never caught anything but legitimate fur-bearing animals. Where I live, people accept trapping and hunting as normal activities. My bet is that a little education and country common sense would help all parties understand one another better.’’
Bill Klein is an avid hunter, sporting-dog owner, angler and student of nature. He has been writing about the outdoors since his retirement from AT&T. He lives in May Township, north of St. Paul.