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Fur Fight

On a warm winter morning, Spencer Bridges looks out across a wide stretch of the Arkansas River churning through the grasslands outside Rocky Ford, and memories float up.

"I grew up out here on this land," he says. "Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn didn't have nothing on us. I'd be out five to ten days at a time, just sleeping out and skipping school. My dad lived in Missouri and, heck, my mom couldn't keep track of me." He canoed the river more times than he can remember and, when he was twelve, began trapping along it.

During an eleven-month tour of duty in Vietnam, Bridges often thought of the river. Some soldiers requested care packages with food from home; he asked his family to send his traps, and he cleaned and handled them and, just for practice, set them for rats.

He was back trapping the Arkansas the day he returned from the war. "It was just so damned dirty and awful over there," he says. "But this, this river, was what coming home was all about. It wasn't wild women and song. It was this."

Colorado's trappers find themselves in an unusual position these days: They're being stalked.

Six months ago the Colorado Division of Wildlife began enforcing new regulations that placed severe restrictions on what types of traps can be used, when they can be used, and on what species. And after the election this November, much of the trapping still done in Colorado could become illegal.

In a roundabout way, the campaign against trapping got started with another election, when Coloradans voted in 1992 to ban most bear hunting. The measure's margin of victory--70 percent to 30 percent--showed a huge gulf between how the Division of Wildlife had been handling wild animals and how the voting public wanted them treated.

As a result, although DOW had always re-evaluated its trapping (and hunting and fishing) regulations every five years, in 1994 the procedure was different. This time, the agency decided, the public's values were as important as biological considerations.

DOW recruited interested citizens, organized public forums and hired professional mediators. In May 1995, after seven months of grueling and emotional meetings, the citizens' group concluded its work.

The resounding consensus was that nobody much agreed on anything. In fact, the best the group could do was to present DOW with four alternatives. The first called for a total ban on trapping; the fourth recommended lifting everything, even the existing regulations that prevented trappers from taking endangered species. The other two fell somewhere in the middle.

At about that same time, DOW received the results of a survey it had commissioned several months earlier, polling state residents for their views on hunting, fishing and trapping. Although many of the survey's findings were vague, one was not: Trappers were unpopular. About two thirds of the people surveyed--mostly those living along the Front Range--said that, with the exception of using trapping to protect human health and safety, they didn't care for the practice at all.

Taking into consideration the survey results, as well as the disparate suggestions of DOW's citizens' group, the Wildlife Commission--whose members are appointed by the governor to oversee DOW and make wildlife policy--decided to restrict trapping. Starting last September, the commission required that trappers use only padded jaw traps and restraining snares (snares that hold but do not choke and kill animals); that traps be checked every 24 hours instead of every 48; and that trappers harvest only eight species of fur bearers, rather than the eighteen previously allowed.

Farmers and ranchers were the first to complain about the new regulations, which they claimed would make it impossible to protect crops and livestock from predators. They were so concerned about the rule change, in fact, that last month state Senator Don Ament, a Republican from Iliff, introduced a bill that would give the Colorado Department of Agriculture--not DOW--authority over which predators could be destroyed, and when and how.

Animal-rights activists responded that the new regulations hadn't gone far enough. In January a Denver couple, Don and Elisa Angell (a retired biologist and librarian, respectively), began circulating a petition that they hope will result in another referendum on this November's ballot. It would ban trapping on all public lands in the state. (There are exceptions for agricultural animal-damage control, although only as a last resort.)

And recently another bill was introduced at the legislature, this one proposing that money from trapping-license fees be used to pay for damage done to livestock by predators. This would mean that the same people who trap coyotes would cover the cost of the damage coyotes do to calves and sheep.

All this peculiar, and sometimes contradictory, activity alarms some wildlife biologists, who note that only lions, bears and other large, visible--and cuddly--creatures grab the public's attention. The problem, they say, is that fiddling with a species sends ripples through the entire ecology. Rodents and rabbits, for instance, have been considered agricultural pests for years and, since no one has much of an interest in protecting them, have been killed freely. But these animals are a prime source of food for coyotes, and their disappearance has caused coyotes to look elsewhere for sustenance--livestock barns and pens, for instance.

 

According to DOW, the state issues anywhere from 900 to 1,300 trapping permits each year. But only a dozen or so Coloradans continue to earn at least half their living from trapping. Most of the rest of the state's residents have no idea what they do. Even the Angells say they have not seen a trapper at work.

Spencer Bridges lives in a small white shack on the southern edge of Rocky Ford. Bleached-white animal skulls are piled in the front yard, and a stack of milk crates crammed full of steel-jaw traps stands by the door. Inside, the walls are covered with coyote, bobcat, beaver, fox and badger skins, as well as dozens of antlers and several mounted trophy fish. In the living area, between the twelve-inch black-and-white TV and the wooden rocking chair with a copy of Tales of the Frontier splayed open next to it, is a small potbellied stove. On it is a large pot in which beaver heads are boiling. There are three large beaver bodies lined up on the floor.

"This shack," Bridges says, "suits me to a T."
Tonight he will begin skinning the beaver on a table just off the kitchen area. He will hang the skins in a back bedroom with open windows and a battered fan perpetually running to dry the pelts. He will cut off the feet and make jewelry, like the necklace he is wearing, with the claws separated by red and blue beads. He will remove the glands flanking either side of the anus and cut them into pieces to make more bait. He will give some of the meat to his two dogs. Most of it he himself will eat.

"I make beaver jerky every year," he says. "I had a beaver roast the other day. I cooked it up with a pot of beans. I had an antelope roast before that. Barbecued 'coon is good; I've been eating that since I was a kid. I eat muskrat, but I don't like it too much--too musky--so the dogs get most of that.

"I may as well be living in the 1800s," he admits.
When he came back from Vietnam in 1968, Bridges had thought about leaving Rocky Ford for a while. But a friend told him about a small house that he could buy for less than $200 a month, and he settled in. Eventually, though, he had to move out of town. "There were houses so close on either side of us," he says. "Don't get me wrong, they were nice neighbors, they were my friends. But I like my privacy."

It was becoming clearer and clearer that what Bridges needed was more than privacy. "You get some people in life who are sort of antisocial, who just want to get out by themselves," he explains. "For a long time I thought it was just me, that I was crazy. But a few years after I got back from Vietnam I began hearing about this delayed stress syndrome. I saw a notice of it somewhere and sent away to Kansas City for a brochure. When I got it I thought, hell, I could've written this. It mostly talked about how you alienate yourself from your friends and family."

Sixteen years ago he split amicably from his wife, Ramona, whom he'd married when he returned from Vietnam. The Bridgeses never bothered getting a divorce, and they seem much more content than most cohabiting couples.

"We're exes, but we get along great," Ramona says. "We're still friends. We just can't stand each other on a daily basis. He stops by my place 'most every day, but he's got his own place. He goes there when he's tired of me. He likes it a lot, being by himself and outdoors trapping. And I'm happy he likes these things. But I don't want him in my kitchen anymore. I got awful tired of animal carcasses lying around."

"It's only right," Bridges agrees. "Women want to do things their own way."
"He still comes in and throws his dad-gum coyotes in my washer," Ramona adds. "And now he's starting to use the dryer."

Bridges' first line of traps sits just beneath the surface of a small pond created by a blocked culvert that runs underneath a dirt road straggling through acres of marshland. The beaver keep plugging the culvert to create a back-pond, and the landowner, which happens to be the state Division of Wildlife, wants the problem stopped. Bridges' closest set is empty, but the next is not; a beaver waits humped up, half in the water, half out.

 

"Generally, it doesn't work like this," Bridges says, sighing. "What he should've done is hit the trap and head back into the water and drown. But things happen. You don't go out in your car and say, 'I'm going to hit a raccoon.' But sometimes you do."

He unholsters the .22 caliber Colt revolver lying against his left hip under his waders. The gun is so old the steel-blue finish has worn to a pewter.

"Man has always been a predator," he says. "The animal-rights people seem to think we're separate. But, hell, I'm a predator. I'm being a predator right now, just like man has been for 10,000 years. I'm as much a part of all this as this beaver."

The bullets are small, so it takes two shots. The beaver thrashes in the shallows, then twitches, then dies. "I don't take no joy in killing anything," Bridges says, moving toward the next set of traps, which are pushed flat into the banks of mud along the Arkansas. "But you gotta do it. People think there's something magical about it--if they pass a law every animal's going to live happily ever after. But it just ain't going to happen that way. They're going to die of starvation and disease. Animal-rights people say that's fine, as long as man's not involved. Well, that just doesn't make any sense to me."

Bridges' second line yields another beaver. He'd set the trap below the water and dragged his knee through the mud above so it appeared that another beaver had pulled itself out of the water and onto the bank. Beavers are aggressively territorial; sometime in the last 24 hours a forty-pound male swam over to inspect the smoothed bank, and the trap clamped around its front foot.

This one died properly. When the beaver felt the jaws close around its leg, it dove back into the water, dragging the trap behind. A one-way knot attaches the trap to a wire that's twisted about a cinderblock tossed back into the current, so when the beaver tried to surface it couldn't, and it drowned. Now it's stiff with ice.

In addition to beaver, Bridges has trapped just about every fur bearer at one time or another, including a pack of wild dogs that he trapped and shot with his rifle at the request of some nearby landowners. Coyotes are harder to kill, so he talks to them. "I don't like it," he says. "But I just go up and look them in the eye. Then I say, 'Well, ol' boy, looks like you got yourself in a fix,' and I put them down quick."

Some animals he'd just as soon avoid altogether. "When a mountain lion is in the area, I'm usually notified," he says. "By the time I get to it, though, he's usually moved on. Which is fine by me; I don't particularly want to kill no mountain lion."

After checking the first several lines, Bridges heads back toward town to gas up his truck. He pumps $5 worth and nods toward the back of his truck. "I'll trade you a beaver for it," he proposes to the attendant. "They make good eating."

"I myself have never eaten a beaver," the attendant replies.
Bridges next drives out to a rancher's house, where he has placed two more traps to remove beaver that are stopping up the man's irrigation system. One of the traps holds another beaver. It, too, has refused to drown, and Bridges kills it with four bullets to the head in a tight pattern around the beaver's left eye.

He will stay up until midnight cleaning today's catch and then leave early the next day, when he will catch three more. The pelts will sell for about $20 each unless they are tanned; he can sell those for $40. And if he can drum up interest, maybe he will sell some claw necklaces, too.

Bridges knows there is not much else he'd prefer to do and so not much else worth doing. "My dad was a roofer," he explains. "He was partners with a guy named Harvey. They worked together, and they helped each other build cabins next to the Ozark River in Missouri. They had docks on the river where they could fish. It was where they were going to go to retire. And they both had heart attacks and died.

 

"So I do what I enjoy now. Do I want to work eight to five in some office and take a load of shit off someone, pay a zillion dollars in income tax? Hell, no. I catch some beaver and drive a beat-up pickup truck, but I'll help anyone. I'm doing what I love.

"If that initiative passes, I'll move. I'm not going to live where I can't trap."

Marvin Miller once caught a mountain lion in a jawed leg trap, but it was illegal and he had to let the cat go. Springing a lion isn't an easy job. "You have to use what's called a 'hog-catcher,' which is a cable loop on the end of a stick," he explains. "You slide it over the lion's neck and choke him a bit to hold him still while you remove the trap."

Miller has also caught eagles, which is illegal, too. He'd placed his traps next to a dead elk in a field outside of Morrison hoping to find a coyote or a fox in them the following morning. Instead, when he drove up to the sets, he found two of the giant birds trying to hop out of his traps.

"The first thing you do," Miller advises, "is remove your coat." Next, you throw it over the eagle's head, hold on tight and undo the trap. You run the risk of finding inch-long lice inside your coat, as Miller did, but that's how you take an eagle out of a trap.

Three years ago, Miller was on the trail of another mountain lion. The animal had discovered the ease and pleasure of eating dog meat, which meant it was now a criminal.

The lion first started killing dogs around the Lookout Mountain area in late December 1992. On Christmas Eve a hundred-pound husky inside an electronic fence near the Mount Vernon Country Club had barked wildly, then stopped. The next day it wasn't difficult to piece together the crime.

"The dog was gone, there was blood all over the yard, and there was mountain lion tracks," Miller recalls. "They followed the tracks up over the mountain and into a cave. And they found the dog." Miller applied to snare the lion.

Miller started trapping in northeast Pennsylvania fifty years ago, when he was nine years old. "My dad was a hunter, not a trapper," he says. "But our neighbor was a trapper. He was one of those hill boys. He never owned a car, didn't speak a lot; he might've been Scottish. He probably made 90 percent of his spending money on what he trapped. He'd almost show me how to trap: He'd tell me when he'd seen where my sets were, and suggest I might want to move them. But then he'd never tell me where."

While working for a wood-preserving company, Miller moved in and out of Colorado three times. He trapped when he could during those years, padding his savings account with what he earned off his hobby.

"I was trapping enough to pay for a couple daughters' educations," he says. "I'd run my traps Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and Sunday and still be able to show up for work. I'd put in about twenty hours a week trapping, maybe make $5,000 a year."

Miller moved to Colorado for good in 1974. Now he traps when he feels like it, mostly around Kittredge and near his home in Golden, and mostly for coyote. His family tolerates his obsession, although he concedes that when his daughter, who works as a naturalist on Long Island, visits, dinner discussions can get heated.

When Miller first applied for permission to trap the lion, DOW turned him down. "They were hesitant to give me the permit," he says. "They wanted to see if the attack on the dog was an isolated incident. Also, they didn't want a lion taken by a trapper for public relations purposes."

That's almost correct, says Kathi Green, who's worked as a DOW biologist for eighteen years. Although lions have always been hunted in Colorado, generally with dogs, trapping them has been permitted only since 1991, when a lion killed an Idaho Springs jogger and DOW changed the rules.

Still, the agency had never issued such a permit. Green says her division wanted to work with local landowners to see if they could get the lion to leave peaceably before resorting to trapping the animal.

Over the next few weeks, however, the lion killed and ate one dog and came close a second time, when a woman let her dog out on the deck of her mountain home and the lion snatched the pet. The woman called her husband, who grabbed his rifle and fired several shots into the ground near the lion. It eventually dropped the dog, several puncture wounds worse for wear.

 

"This lion was getting particularly bold," recalls Green. "He was being seen around houses and near doors."

Several people had permits to hunt lion in the area, but they'd been unable to find the right one. One hunter treed a female, but a quick check showed it was the wrong animal. Judging from a track left in the snow, the lion who was developing a taste for dogs was much bigger.

Convinced that the animal needed to be removed--but also resigned to the fact that the Lookout Mountain area was too populated to have hunters and dogs running all over--DOW finally granted Miller his permit to trap a lion on February 19, 1993. "We thought it was the best way to go," Green recalls. "And Marvin was very experienced with snares."

By then the lion had been spotted again, this time by a school bus driver who saw it curled up by the side of the road as he was letting students off the bus. On February 26 it grabbed another dog, a 65-pound golden retriever.

When he discovered his dog was gone, the owner called Miller, and the two men tracked the trail of blood through the snow. They found the dog's partially eaten body in a draw over the hill from the country club.

Frequently lions wait to eat their kill; some will lick the blood out of the lungs and return later to consume the remainder of the carcass. So after he located the dog, Miller returned that evening with his snare. Just to be safe, he brought a rifle mounted with a flashlight. As the beam danced off the brush, he saw the lion on the edge of the ambient light. It was behind a juniper bush, and then it was gone.

Miller set his snare on a bench two thirds of the way down the draw. He used a one-eighth-inch cable suspended from a wire off the branch of a bush just below the dog's carcass. At the end of the cable, about a foot off the ground, was a loop secured by a one-way catch, so that once the lion's head slipped in, the cable would draw tight around his neck.

Miller returned the next morning with the dog's owner. When the lion, which was snagged in the snare, jumped up, Miller shot it. "It was almost as if he couldn't set his snare fast enough," Green says.

Miller had the lion's body mounted by a local taxidermist, where it remains. "My wife won't let me bring it in the house yet," he says.

Les Deason learned how to trap 72 years ago. He is now 83 years old, and there aren't many animals that escape once he decides to catch them. "Anything that walks or crawls, I can catch it," he says. "I'm not bragging. That's just the way it is." Those who know Les Deason agree.

He grew up on an Oklahoma cotton farm, where his family also raised cattle and dairy cows, and he devoted all of his spare time to learning about trapping. School was wedged into the spaces that were left.

"We lived a quarter-mile from school," Deason recalls. "I'd run my traps before school. I'd take a gunnysack along with me and fill it with animals. Sometimes it would get so full that I couldn't drag it back, so I'd hide it in the bushes. After school I'd tell my dad where it was, and he'd go get it.

"I trapped a lot of skunks and civet cats. Because I ran the line before school, I was usually the last one in. It was a one-room schoolhouse with a potbellied stove in the middle. I'd come up to warm myself and that skunk smell would begin circulating around. Pretty soon I was the only one by the stove. I got sent home a lot.

"As soon as I got home from school, I'd start skinning," he remembers. "Once a week the fur buyer would come by school and get permission from my teacher to let me go out to our shed and buy fur. I got out of school for one hour that way. He'd buy a skunk pelt for $5. The traders used to cut the white strip out and sell it as sable.

"I made pretty good money. One year I saved up, and I was able to buy my dad a vest for Christmas. It was made of horsehide, with army twill inside. It cost $12. Man, that was fancy."

 

This is Les Deason's recipe for homemade beaver bait: Dice the glands found on either side of the beaver's anus, then grind them in a blender with vegetable oil. "A lot of people will laugh at me for using vegetable oil," he says. "But I sure catch beavers."

Although he is a trapper first, Deason also hunts, and one of his favorite spots to call ducks had always been a sprawling piece of land along the Platte River, north and east of Denver. After the stretch was sold in the mid-Eighties, Deason's son called the new owner and asked if he and his father could continue hunting there.

"The foreman there said we could, but what he really wanted to know was, did we know anybody who trapped?" Deason recalls. "My son said he sure did, and he set up a meeting. So I went down and hired out there."

That's how Les Deason became the staff trapper on the billionaire's 35,000-acre ranch in Weld County. His primary job was to thin the coyotes that stalked the billionaire's cattle.

Deason trapped at the place for seven years. It was like turning over bank keys to the James brothers. "It was the best trapping I ever had in my life," he says. "I caught coyote, mink, skunk, possum, beaver, raccoon, muskrat, badger, fox. He paid me a monthly fee and let me keep all the fur. Mostly it was coyote. When I first went there, they had lost nineteen calves to coyote. After I got there, they lost only one."

He ran a hundred traps at a time; in his best year he caught 138 coyotes. "One day, after my fourth or fifth year, I was driving with the ranch foreman while he checked fences," he recalls, "and we tried to figure out how many coyotes I've trapped. We weren't sure, but we calculated it was somewhere in the thousands."

This is his method for trapping coyote: For bait use ground bobcat meat with anise, or seasoned horse or deer meat (bury it underground for thirty days "until it is tainted, not rotted. You absolutely do not want maggots in it"). Put the bait into a six- to eight-inch-deep hole dug at a 45-degree angle. Place a wad of grass on top, like a mouse nest. Offset the trap a half-inch or so to one side or other of the hole, so the coyote doesn't straddle it when he approaches the burrow.

"I was never treated better in my life than when I was at that ranch," Deason says. "I was out there Monday through Friday. They gave me a place to stay and a new four-wheel-drive truck. I'd check my traps and then leave for home Saturday, spend the night here and then go back out on Sunday. It was my retirement, but I retired to do what I want to do. And that was trap. My wife knew that. She's a good wife. You don't live with someone 58 years and not know them."

Deason retired from his retirement job two years ago. Now he runs an animal damage-control business in Boulder. It's slow compared to thinning coyote on a ranch twice the size of Boulder, but Deason still gets to remove skunks from porches, squirrels from roofs and raccoons from basements. "Boulder," he reveals, "is infested with raccoons."

This is how he catches raccoon in the presence of skunks: Since skunks don't climb like raccoons, set your trap on a platform. (Deason uses an old weight-lifting bench.) Try fried chicken for bait, unless the animal has been caught in a trap before. Then use a fish head.

Underneath a table in the living room of Deason's Boulder home is a photo album: a trapper's scrapbook. The pictures show him standing and squatting next to various pelts and catches. He remembers each one as well as a parent recalling his children's growth stages.

"Here's some fox," he says. "They's the most beautiful animals. Look at that tail. There's some more coyote. This one's a calf-killer. You could just follow his tracks back and forth to the herd." One of the photos shows Deason marching across a field with a stick over his shoulder, from which hangs four red foxes. "I made the national magazine with that picture," he says.

On the mantel over his fireplace are books, including Animals of North America and Christian Life, that speak to the order of things in Les Deason's world. "Christ is first in my life, then my family," he explains. "And then trapping.

"Human beings is over all animals. I don't remember just what chapter and verse it is, but it's in the Bible; I read it several times. And Christ killed animals to cover the body with furs. You could find it in the Bible."

 

On a stone-cold morning he prepares to check the traps he set the day before for about a half-dozen customers in and around Boulder. "There's not going to be a lot of animals out this morning," he predicts. "They don't move in this weather. They got more sense than us."

As Deason finishes his coffee, his wife, Trudy, shuffles into the living room. Once, several years ago, Trudy went with her husband when he checked his traps on the billionaire's place. As they came over a rise, they saw two coyotes held in the leg traps. She pleaded with him not to kill them, but he did anyway, with a .22 rifle shot in the forehead. Still, Trudy realizes that trapping has been her husband's companion for even longer than she has, and she's become adept at unremembering the more unsavory details. "Now," she says, "I just don't want to see it."

"Most women, they can't stand to see any animal killed," Deason adds. "But my wife knows it wouldn't do any good to tell me to stop. I couldn't. It's my life."

These days he uses only live box traps instead of jaws, but in some ways that is just a visual courtesy for his clients. In a corner of the garage is a wooden box connected by copper tube to a canister of carbon monoxide. There also is a broom handle in the back of his pickup, with a hypodermic needle containing acetone taped to one end. "Three to six seconds, that's all it takes," he says.

Deason drives to the east of Boulder, through fields recently covered by a white mattress of snow. "I just love driving after a snow," he says. "You can see what's been out at night." He pauses, then adds, "I'd do this if I wasn't getting anything for it."

He checks some squirrel traps he set on the roof of an expensive house with a spectacular view of the Flatirons. He cruises through a trailer court, where he rigged a specially designed trap for a skunk that had made its home underneath a trailer. A raccoon trap at a retired judge's house is empty. So are all the others, and Deason returns home empty-handed.

But that is part of the appeal. Deason sees himself matching wits with animals on their terms. "Put it this way," he explains. "You got a 30,000-acre ranch and a six-inch trap. You have to know what you're doing to get an animal to put his foot there."

He'll go back out tomorrow, and then the next day and the next; he admits he wouldn't begin to know how to stop. "You can live without fur, I'll agree with you there," he says. "But if I want fur, I should be able to go out and get it. Same with animal-rights people: If they don't want to eat meat, that's their privilege. They can eat all the vegetables and fruit they want. I like vegetables and fruit. But when I want meat, I want meat.


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