Along The Trail 12-18-14

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Editor’s Note: This is a column written by Switzerland County’s David Hewitt. The articles center on all things ‘outdoors’, from hunting and fishing to woodsmanship.

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He slips around the pond quietly checking likely looking spots.

The tell-tale signs the little rodents leave behind. The grasses along the bank wore down into small paths, runs leading in and out of the water, streaks of mud along the shallows. Holes burrowed into an overhanging edge – all evidence that muskrats live here.

Five sets checked and nothing, zero, zip.

Walking to the last spot near the pond’s dam and I’m silently hoping and wishing for success for the kid’s first real trap line. A small, dark shadow under the water’s surface can only mean one thing – a catch!

A finely furred muskrat has fallen to the boy’s well placed set.

He’s had some success in land trapping, but this is his first foray into water and the catch boosted his confidence and with each trap placed, he’s learning more about the outdoors, nature and the animals that live there.

Fur trapping is a dying art in the world of the outdoor industry. It’s becoming something of a lost skill.

What once was a popular way to make some pocket money for a teen has slipped into obscurity. Partly because of the negative press furtaking has received over the last couple of decades, but also due in fact that a lot of the old timers have died out and there aren’t many fellas left to pass on the skill and to teach today’s youth.

And, sadly, there just aren’t as many young people today who are interested in becoming outdoorsmen.

Trapping, although controversial in some areas of the country, is a much needed tool for wildlife management.

A lot of folks might not relish the fact that deer have to be hunted in order to control their numbers, but they accept the role hunters play in conservation. Trappers fill that same niche in the world of furbearers.

Coyotes, foxes, raccoons, muskrats, beavers and other wild animals have to be kept in check in order for us to live alongside them. The Department of Natural Resources sets the seasons for fur trapping in accordance to the numbers of animals it feels can and need to be taken on an annual basis in order to maintain a healthy population.

Some people who might wonder why furbearers need to be harvested or think that they are only trapped for their pelts, here’s something to think about:

Annually, raccoons can, and in many instances do, cause more crop damage to corn than whitetailed deer. Most farmers who raise corn will tell you that the first few rows of corn along a field edge goes to the ‘coons. Additionally, raccoons can cause thousands of dollars of damage around a farm or home in the form of feed loss; damage to buildings, houses and barns by chewing through wires, wood and drywall; and can contaminate the area with their droppings.

Muskrats can cause an untold amount of damage to ponds by burrowing and undercutting the banks, which in turn causes erosion. The pond I discussed above has several areas of the shore collapsing as a result of the rats digging and tunneling along the bank. The ground becomes weak and then falls toward the water. The holes and ruts that follow make for tripping hazard for livestock and people as well that may utilize the pond for a watersource or for fishing.

The last several years has seen a rise in the numbers of coyotes in our area. Coyotes are probably the wittiest, most cunning of all of our furbearers. They see, hear and their sense of smell is far superior to most other animals.

A lot of us have dogs as pets that we consider smart - now imagine an intelligent, wild dog that has figured out how to thrive in the suburbs and the country all across the nation, East to West, North to South.

They are extremely difficult to trap, but at least in our area with no natural enemies to keep their numbers in check, trapping and predator hunting are the only viable option. Besides deer fawn predation and killing young livestock, ‘yotes have also been known to attack and kill small house pets and even hunting dogs.

I’m not trying to convince people that trapping is for them or that you have to “like” it. Even folks who enjoy hunting might not savor it. But it is a much needed tool in our box for wildlife management. Just ask anyone that has had to replace electrical wiring due to animal damage or lost a calf to a coyote or lost timber to a hungry beaver and I’m sure they’ll agree that taking of predators and furbearers is needed.

I for one am glad that there are still a handful of youngsters around who want to add it to their resume of woodsmanship and keep it alive for the next generation so we can all enjoy the wildlife.

– David Hewitt