Anderson: To catch a wolf, by snare or trap

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 17, 2012 - 6:57 PM

About 700 trappers have licenses to pursue canis lupis. Their challenge is to be more clever than their quarry.

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Matt Steffen with an example of a snare that similar to the setup he will use to try to trap a wolf starting next weekend near Silver Bay.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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As a kid growing up in the Twin Cities' northwest suburbs, Matt Steffen often pedaled his bike with a milk crate balanced atop one fender.

He wasn't riding to a nearby Dairy Queen or burger joint. But to a marsh, then a creek, and a marsh again.

In the milk crate were traps, some leg-hold, some body-gripping.

"Fur prices were pretty high then,'' he said. "A large muskrat pelt skinned and dried could bring as much as $6. That was a lot of money to me.''

Today, Steffen, 48, still traps, though coyotes and fox, not muskrats, are his primary targets.

"I don't trap as much as I did when I was a kid, because I don't have the time,'' he said. "I guess you could say my trap line has gotten smaller and smaller over the years. A couple of years, I didn't trap at all because fur prices were so low, there was no money in it.''

Now, it could be said, Steffen has regained his trapping mojo. He's among an estimated 700 trappers who have been given a Department of Natural Resources wolf trapping permit.

"A wolf pelt might bring about $500,'' he said. "But if I get one, I'm not going to sell it. I'll keep it.''

• • •

Trapping is widely misunderstood, and probably always will be.

To the uninitiated, the pastime (or, in some cases, occupation) is cruel to the point of barbarism.

But to trappers, spending time in the state's woods or farmlands, attempting to outwit a coyote or mink or fox is less sport than lifestyle, and one in which even small successes can be difficult to achieve.

Perhaps never more will the state's trappers be tested than when the lucky ones who drew wolf trapping permits scatter among the hinterlands beginning Saturday in an attempt to outfox canis lupis.

Not only will they have to beat the wolf at its own game -- cleverness -- they'll have to beat the clock, too.

That's because the total target harvest, or quota, the DNR has set for the state's inaugural wolf season is 400 animals. It's expected when the first wolf season ends Sunday, during which only hunting, not trapping, was allowed, about 150 will have been killed.

That leaves 250 to be taken -- if they can be taken -- during a second season that allows both trapping and hunting.

And if Wisconsin's wolf season is any indication -- more than half of the 80 or so wolves taken there have been trapped -- trapping wolves in Minnesota will prove more effective than hunting them, so much so that the 400-animal quota might be reached relatively quickly, perhaps within a month's time.

• • •

Steffen will seek his wolf not with a trap but a snare.

He prefers snares because they're cheaper than traps, and because they kill a captured animal quickly. Leg-hold traps, conversely, catch an animal and hold it until a trapper arrives and kills it.

"When an animal is caught in a snare, it's natural for it to lunge forward, and keep lunging,'' Steffen said. "When it does, the snare draws tighter.''

Minnesota's rich trapping tradition dates to the days of the earliest voyageurs. Their trips by freighter canoe across Lake Superior to what is now the North Shore are well documented, and they were among the first white people to travel through what is now the boundary waters.

Their destination was the vast furbearer-rich lands surrounding Lake of the Woods and beyond.

Similarly, the earliest relationships between whites and Native Americans who inhabited what is now Minnesota were founded in large part on a trapping economy.

Today, that tradition lives on among the state's 7,000 or so trappers, many of whom set traps or snares only occasionally.

Yet all agree the woodsmanship and animal knowledge necessary to be a successful trapper is a skill set worth preserving, no matter how urban-centered the state becomes.

"I do most of my trapping around the Twin Cities,'' Steffen said. "I trap coyotes and fox. Coyotes are challenging. I've never trapped a wolf. But I'm sure they're like coyotes, or smarter. They'll be a challenge.''

• • •

Steffen will set his snares in the state's Arrowhead region, north of Duluth, country he's scouting this weekend.

He's hoping snow falls there soon, because finding wolf tracks is the first step in finding wolves.

"I'll probably set my snares a quarter-mile or so apart,'' he said. "I'll look for trails, and I'll also make my own trails and try to draw a wolf to them using bait.''

Friends of his who hunt deer have saved carcasses for him, which he hopes to place strategically near his snares.

"If I make my own trails, I'll use an electric saw to cut saplings, because I don't want to leave gasoline smell around the baits,'' he said. "If you want to trap successfully, you don't leave any scent. You don't spit or urinate or smoke anywhere near the baits.''

All of Steffen's traps will be deodorized using a product called Snare Dip, then packaged in Zip-Loc or similar bags for the trip north.

The undertaking will be expensive. Motel, food and equipment costs, along with travel costs between his home and the North Shore, will add up.

But the experience will be worth it, he said, just like when he was a kid riding his bike to trap muskrats.

"The challenge is my motivation,'' he said. "That and there are too many wolves in parts of the state.

"It'll be cool to be part of it the first year Minnesota allows wolf trapping.''

Dennis Anderson's Twitter name is @stribdennis • danderson@startribune.com

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