Air Date: Week of December 26, 1997
Almost three hundred years ago fur trapping led to the settlement of much of the upper Great Lakes region. The beaver's warm, luxuriant fur was prized for making hats and coats. So prized, in fact, that by the early 1900s, the beaver was almost trapped to extinction. But lately, the animals have staged a comeback; which makes life a bit more interesting for two north woods trappers, Rodger Fish and Ray Briggs. They still pursue beavers every winter; and this year The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Nick Van Der Puy joined them on the trapline.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Almost 300 years ago fur trapping led European settlers into the remotest regions of North America. One of the most prized pelts was the beaver, with a warm, luxuriant fur that was popular for making hats and coats. So popular that by the early 1900s, the beaver was almost trapped to extinction. But lately, the animals have staged a comeback, which makes life a bit more interesting for 2 North Woods trappers, Roger Fish and Ray Briggs. They still pursue beavers every winter, and the Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Nick Van Der Puy joined them on the trapline. Here's his report.
VAN DER PUY: We walk out on a barely frozen pond in northern Wisconsin. A beaver lodge made from sticks and mud rises above the thin ice.
FISH: This is a beaver, all beaver cutting here. They sure make a mess, they can log a bunch of 'er. Ya know that's the easiest way to spot some of the areas is by just seeing the trees cut down by the beavers. You know there's an active colony around. You see the house right out here. We got 5 sets here so we'll check them out.
VAN DER PUY: Back in the 17- and 1800s French and native trappers worked places like this to fill the huge European demand for warm beaver pelts. The beaver were almost completely trapped out. Then, at the turn of the last century, the forest was cut, grew back, and in the past 30 years has grown back again. Beaver love to eat the new growth aspen or popple trees, which shoot up after a timber harvest. Now the animals are approaching record numbers. Trout fishermen, in fact, consider them a nuisance.
(Ice being chopped)
VAN DER PUY: Ray Briggs walks ahead, probing and chopping a hole with an ice chisel, looking for the traps set beneath the ice. While his partner, Roger Fish, slips on a black rubber glove up to his elbow. Fish grabs the chain from a stake and reaches down the hole to pull up the trap.
(Heavy breathing and pulling)
FISH: It's definitely sprung. And there is a beaver in it. I'll chisel her out all the way now, it feels like a medium size beaver. But we really can't tell till we get him out.
VAN DER PUY: This is nice; there's not much ice.
The thin ice makes this pretty dangerous work. Briggs broke through up to his ears a few weeks ago. Fish pulled him out before he froze. But the beaver aren't so lucky. The men here use a conibear trap. Its folding steel frame snaps shut, choking the animal to death.
FISH: You notice it's hooked right behind the head so it's a very good hook on him . You don't damage any of the fur that way. And this one here is probably going to be a large beaver when we grade him, when we get him skinned out and stretched. So it's a nice beaver.
VAN DER PUY: Trapping faces stiff opposition from animal rights groups across the country. They see this kind of hunting as brutal and unnecessary. But Briggs defends the types of traps they are using.
BRIGGS: These are killing traps. They kill them immediately. Like that, you can see where his head shot, and it kills them within minutes. And this is the trap...
VAN DER PUY: Ray Briggs and Roger Fish have been trapping almost 30 years. Each year they catch several hundred beaver. When he isn't out trapping, Briggs works as a forestry technician for the state of Wisconsin. He sees how beaver flood land and gnaw down trees. Fish pulls a conibear trap from his pack basket.
FISH: These conibears can really get messed up with the springs and hooks and drive you half crazy at times.
VAN DER PUY: He shows how to load the trap, by pulling a trigger spring behind 2 folding steel rectangles.
FISH: See, right now, that's the way it's set. Want to put a stick in it and fire it for him?
BRIGGS: He took the locks off the springs, now, so the springs --
FISH: It'll go off.
BRIGGS: A beaver swims in --
(The trap springs shut)
FISH: That -- that's what does it to him.
VAN DER PUY: A few years ago Briggs broke his wrist when a conibear he was checking snapped back on him. We check the other sets. By the time we leave the frozen pond, 4 more fat beaver lay on the ice.
VAN DER PUY: The men ready to sled, to pull their catch back to the truck.
FISH: Now this part's not the fun part. Carrying them out is not fun. You can get over 100 pounds of beaver here, and we've got to get back to the truck.
BRIGGS: Notice I put most of the weight on Roger.
(A truck door slams)
VAN DER PUY: After skinning the beaver back at the cabin, Briggs and Fish will sell their catch to a fur buyer from Toronto. The carcasses go to a sled dog team for food. Right now, a prime beaver pelt fetches about $30. Prices have been rising lately, due to increased demand for fur in Asia. But Roger Fish doesn't do it for the money.
FISH: To me it's a challenge and it gives you the opportunity to be out in the woods and in the fall you see ducks, see geese, locate your rice and you know I harvest wild rice. Everything out there has some purpose for it and I just enjoy doing it all.
VAN DER PUY: With plenty of popple sticks around to feed hungry beaver, it seems that Briggs and Fish will enjoy trapping for a long, long time.
VAN DER PUY: For Living on Earth, I'm Nick Van Der Puy in Rhinelander, Wisconsin.
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