Trappers – The Hunter’s Best Friend

It’s summer as you read this, but it’s spring as I write it, and this morning I killed a fine turkey gobbler.

All by itself, that’s noteworthy. Most of the turkeys I come into contact with somehow manage to survive the encounter. But this one was even more remarkable. This one came to the call, absorbed a load of 5s and died on the same ridge upon which, over the past four trapping seasons, Jill and I have caught four coyotes, two bobcats, three gray foxes, five big high-ground boar ’coons and maybe two dozen ’possums and skunks.

A hunter who also traps can be his own best friend. Reducing the predator population in a specific area is one of the best ways to increase the production and survival of many upland and wetland species of game and non-game animals. This is especially true with ground-nesting birds like quail, pheasants, ducks… and turkeys. If you don’t want to take my word for it, ask Field Editor Serge Lariviere. In his former “day job,” Serge was scientific director of Delta Waterfowl Foundation and he coordinated and studied much of the waterfowl nest predation research in the prairie pothole region.

Much of this is landmark research, boldly challenged long-held misconceptions about the effectiveness of concentrated predator control. I won’t steal Serge’s thunder, because I hope he’ll be writing more about that research in these pages. But I’ll nibble around the edges a little by saying that trapping can efficiently and cost-effectively increase nesting success for ducks. Visit http://www.deltawaterfowl.org/ddp/predator/research.php for more details.

There are those who say predator control is unnecessary, that for thousands of years before man started trapping, predator and prey species existed together in a balanced relationship. The second half of that statement is true. It’s the first half that misses the target.

And the reason it misses is because we’ve so drastically altered the landscape that we’ve made it easier for predators to find their prey. Take the prairie pothole region, for instance. When Lewis and Clark skirted the southern edge of it as they ascended the Missouri in 1803 and 1804, this wilderness stretched in an unbroken grassland, dotted by ponds, marshes and lakes beyond counting. It was a thousand miles wide and stretched from the Missouri River to the boreal forests of Canada. No roads, no crop fields, no fencerows. Just prairie after prairie, pothole after pothole, occasionally seamed by one of the infrequent stream systems that were beginning to form in this young, recently glaciated landscape.

It was good habitat, and it was immense. There were literally millions of water bodies, and millions of acres of grassland. Ducks could and did nest practically anywhere, and predators had to work to find the nests. As a result, many nests remained unfound, and hatched the multitudes of little baby ducks that grew up and blackened the pre-settlement skies.

But then we came with plows and ditching machines, and now there are far fewer potholes. The vegetation that surrounds them is no longer vast prairie, but a thin rim of grasses bordered closely by crop fields. It doesn’t take a magna cum laude predator to quickly figure out where the ducks are nesting. As a result, today’s predators are much more efficient at finding duck nests.

The habitat is different, but the principle is the same with birds like quail, pheasants and turkeys. Nesting habitat is more limited and of much lower quality, and predators have figured out how to find the nests with a higher degree of efficiency. Since game birds can’t ramp up their nesting efforts to compensate, the net result is undesirable.

Trapping can help control predator populations and give ground-nesting birds (not to mention other big-game and small-game critters) a better chance of survival. That’s one of the primary reasons Jill and I trap every year on the national forest land surrounding our home. We could do better, financially, trapping elsewhere, but this is where we live. Largely, it’s also where we hunt.
There’s no way to prove it, but I have a feeling the gobbler I shot this morning wouldn’t have been on that ridge if Jill and I hadn’t caught so many egg-eaters there in the past four years. Almost certainly there wouldn’t have been seven gobblers, which as near as I could determine was how many were gobbling along that ridge this morning.

With today’s fur market in the toilet and the economy right there with it, it’s getting harder for many trappers to get motivated. Maybe the realization that you’re improving the survival odds of your turkey, pheasant, quail or waterfowl crop with every predator you trap will help you put on your game face this season. I know the memory of that big gobbler strutting down that ridge this morning is going to give me a little extra push this fall.

Jim Spencer, of Calico Rock, Ark. is executive editor of T&PC. To contact Jim, send mail to P.O. Box 758, Calico Rock, AR 72519 or e-mails to modernmountainman@gmail.com.

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