Thrice convicted of trapping violations in northern Minnesota, Roderick "Rick" Kottom was well known to Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officers even before he was charged last week in a new criminal case that made headlines all over the state.
What's different this time, insiders say, is the magnitude and senselessness of an allegedly illegal fur-gathering operation that included 637 illegal snares in four counties and numerous instances of wild game captured and left to waste.
According to 98 pages of DNR investigation reports obtained by the Star Tribune, traps allegedly set by Kottom and Douglas A. Marana, both of Chisholm, caught at least 18 foxes, two wolves, two fishers, five snowshoe hares and one deer all found by game wardens in wire snares. A couple of the animals were found alive, but many were long dead, buried in snow or partly eaten by other animals.
The DNR reports said suspects were actively baiting traps to attract new furbearers while other traps, previously baited at other sites, were holding unchecked game.
"The sheer volume of traps would make it virtually impossible to check every trap daily'' as required by law, said Lt. Brent Speldrich, a DNR district enforcement officer in the Duluth area.
Kottom and Marana both refused to be interviewed by DNR investigators, leaving questions about "why?" unanswered. They are each scheduled for arraignment April 13 in St. Louis County Court.
"I would like to see them get nailed,'' said Frank Brula, an Iron Range trapping instructor who lives in Babbitt. "It seems like they were out to destroy animals, and that's what they did.
"They weren't real trappers.''
Marana, 70, could not be reached for comment. Kottom, reached Friday afternoon by phone, declined to be interviewed at length. He called the DNR "liars'' and said he is looking for a defense attorney to fight the allegations.
"There's a lot of stuff here that is going on,'' Kottom said. "They've been out for me for a long time.''
Kottom, 68, also known as "Papa Fisher,'' was convicted in 2008 for possession of a mounted Canada lynx, a threatened wildlife species. In 2007, he was convicted of failure to check traps or snares, failure to attach self-identification tags to his traps, and illegal possession of pine marten, otter or fisher. In 2013, Kottom again was convicted of failure to check shares daily.
Marana has no game-related cases listed against him in court records.
Smell of money
Brula, a longtime trapper active in the Minnesota Trappers' Association, said fur prices have been in a prolonged slump. "If anyone is telling you they are trapping and making money — it's not true,'' he said.
But there are indications in the DNR reports that Kottom's trapping was commercial.
On Jan. 9, investigators obtained a warrant to search the Keewatin Taxidermy shop. The shop owner, Christopher Kunze, told investigators that he barters taxidermy services to Kottom in exchange for furs, according to the reports. Kunze told investigators the exchange rate was one fox for $25 worth of taxidermy work.
Kunze told investigators Kottom recently gave him two gray foxes and six red ones. Kunze said in the report that he uses the pelts to make display mounts, which he sells on eBay for around $400 apiece.
DNR Conservation Officer Don Bozovsky was part of the enforcement team that searched Kottom's home, also on Jan. 9. His report said Kottom and Kottom's wife, Jeanne, were both in the house.
"At one point, Jeanne complained about the car stinking badly,'' Bozovsky wrote. "Roderick said it was the smell of money.''
The search turned up three dead fox in the trunk of Kottom's 2002 Ford Focus, a vehicle followed by the DNR with a court-sanctioned mobile tracking device. In and around Kottom's garage, officers also reported finding a small body grip trap containing a weasel. The weasel was under a whole, frozen red fox on the cement floor of the breezeway, reports said. Nearby were two frozen carcasses believed to be pine marten and a fisher in a black plastic bag.
Duluth-area game warden Kipp Duncan started the illegal-trapping investigation in December 2014 when he was tipped to a live wolf caught in a snare. Like all wire loops collected in the investigation, the one that circled the wolf's neck was illegally anonymous. Trappers are required to attach their identification tags to each trap to hold them accountable.
Duncan reported that he "put the wolf down.'' In 2015 and 2016, he found similarly unmarked snares within a few miles of where the wolf was trapped. One contained a live dog that was released to its owner. A dead fox and a female adult deer were also found.
The discoveries continued until a DNR trail identified Kottom as a suspect. Marana was brought into the investigation when another DNR game warden noted that Kottom and Marana were together at a DNR fur registration in Hibbing.
At a search of Marana's home, also on Jan. 9, agents recovered a Garmin GPS unit that contained precise waypoints on five separate routes. The most popular of those routes went south from Chisholm, as far as the Two Harbors area, according to the reports.
The trappers would walk just 10 to 30 feet into the woods and anchor clusters of snares in balsam trees. In the center of those snares — many set with illegally sized loops — the trappers would bait the site with pheasant parts.