The art of trapping Idaho’s wolves

Nov 26, 2011

Idaho is the first state outside of Alaska to regulate a trapping season for wolves. It came after the animal was removed from the Endangered Species List this spring. Trappers who are hoping to snare a gray wolf are required to take a mandatory class.

If anyone can tell you how challenging it is to trap a wolf, it’s Rick Williamson.

Williamson is a carnivore biologist with Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game. He recently retired from his position as a wolf management specialist with the federal government. He’s is teaching a class of about 25 people how to set a foothold trap.

Two generations of trapping

Williamson has spent over 30 years working with wolves in Idaho, and for about a decade, his 15-year-old grandson, Brett Swain has tagged along.

“It’s awesome,” Williamson says. “We’ve had the most memorable times.”

“Thousands of miles together,” Swain chimes in.

“Yeah we’ve been a long, long ways together and we’ve had times, we were talking on the way down here about the time just a year ago wasn’t it, when we were in the little tent in the middle of the night and the rain flap was off and we could see the moon was coming up and we could see the big lodgepoles and the wolves started howling about 200 yards from our tent," Williamson says.

"And those kinds of times you just can’t forget.”

But both men are amongst only a few who have ever tracked and trapped Idaho’s elusive wolves.

"Most kids his age -- most guys -- don’t ever have that experience, and you know he’s gotten to be pretty efficient. He can get the coffee done pretty early in the morning," Williamson says with a laugh.

Trapping as an art

Patrick Carney is attending the class so he can purchase his trapping tags. He also traps with his grandson.

”He’s seven," Carney says. "Last year me and my buddy Bill took him and he caught an otter."

"This year, he’s already got his trapping license and about a month ago he said the fur sale’s coming up in January and since I’m a full time trapper now, it’s time we need to get going.”

Carney is the President of the Idaho Trappers Association. He's never trapped a wolf, but he agrees when Williamson calls trapping a dying art.

“I think that would be one of the largest things I’ve done is be able to bring the younger trappers on board and teach them what to do," Williamson says. "Trapping is an art and the bug that you get when you’re trapping. And, there’s a lot of people that don’t agree with it and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to set down with those folks, a lot of them, and show them what we’re doing and respect their opinions and they respect mine.”

Trapping is part of Idaho's culture

In the early 1800s, an expedition along the Snake River brought fur trappers to Southern Idaho. And Patrick Carney says it’s been part of Idaho’s culture ever since.

“People were trapping in this state before it was a state, trapping is what opened up the west and most of this country," he says. "Yeah it’s definitely part of Idaho.”

But the thrill of the hunt and a thriving fur market in the Victorian era didn’t always motivate trappers. In 1915, Congress appropriated $125,000 -- what today amounts to nearly $3 million -- to remove predators, including wolves, from public lands.

Wolves were trapped, shot and poisoned to deal with livestock predation. The Department of Fish and Game believes the last wolf was killed in the Gem state in the 1930s.

Thinking like a wolf

Williamson uses a drill to dig a bait hole about a foot and a half away from the trap he’s just set. He wants to make it look as though an animal came through and dug up a tasty morsel.

If you’re going to catch a wolf, he says, you have to think like a wolf.

“I think wolves are a prolific animal," Williamson says. "They’re sensitive to a lot of people, but just the mystic of being out with wolves in general and you know the look in their eye and you know I have a lot of respect for wolves, I don’t hate wolves. They are kind of a cool animal."

He sets the trap and buries it. Then he sticks two golf ball sized stones on either side and he lays three larger rocks around the hole he’s just dug.

He’s trying to get the wolf to step right between the stones. The odds of convincing a wolf to set it’s paw down right on top of the buried three-inch metal pan are low. It’s like trying to drop a grapefruit into a teacup that’s resting somewhere, within a management unit that is hundreds-of-thousands of acres in size.

Taking the mandatory class

It’s estimated Idaho is home to more than 1,000 wolves today. Roughly the same number of trappers come to Idaho each year. Among them, fewer than 100 wolf trapping tags have sold. But close to 300 people have taken Fish and Game's mandatory class.

Patrick Carney says the Trappers Association pushed for the classes, because it's been nearly eight decades since anyone other than federal wildlife officials has trapped a wolf.

“I’m not worried about the trappers out there," he says. "But new people that just want to catch a wolf and they don’t understand trapping and the concepts and the basics of it and using the wrong equipment and that kind of stuff could have caused us problems and we didn’t want to be in the spotlight in a negative way. We know this wolf issue is a very polarizing issue.”

Because of the controversy involving wolf reintroduction and hunting and trapping, Rick Williamson says he feels a lot more pressure to perform well in this, Idaho’s first ever official wolf trapping season.

“I think it’s a more important task to help educate the people that want to be trappers and teach them the importance of ethics and responsibility," he says. "We are under a great magnifying glass.”

Fish and Game is required to report trapped and hunted wolf numbers to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Since this summer, conservation groups have been trying to halt hunting and trapping in Idaho and Montana. They’ve filed an injunction that’s pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Copyright 2011 Boise State Public Radio