By GARRY LENTON | Reading Eagle
READING, Pa. (AP) — Dan Lynch parks his truck on the farm lane, grabs his backpack from the back, and walks south toward an icy pond.
He has traps nearby, with the permission of the farmer. His prey: red fox, maybe a coyote.
It's midmorning and the sun is bright, but not yet strong enough to melt the sheen of ice on the pond. He breaks stride long enough to point to a lazy trail of air bubbles trapped beneath the ice.
"That's the path of the muskrat and the hole is right down here," Lynch said, tapping the grassy bank with a walking stick.
Lynch, 39, a wildlife educator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, is part of a small but growing group of sportsmen who trap game in Pennsylvania. From October to March, he rises at 3:30 every morning to check 18 traps a short drive from his home. He's back home by 6 a.m., in time to get to his full-time job by 7:30. Anything he caught will be skinned before he goes to bed that night.
It's a schedule that makes it easier to understand why the state issues only 40,000 furtaker licenses, compared with nearly 1 million general hunting permits.
"Here's the difference between trapping and hunting," Lynch said. "The deer is 200 yards away and I have a rifle with my scope on it. Maybe I can make that shot. Maybe. But, if I want to catch that fox, he can go wherever he wants and I have to get him to put his foot on a pan that is only an inch to an inch and half wide. I just get a little more out of that."
In the early 1800s, men like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson explored the American West, trapping beaver and hunting buffalo.
The routes they traveled and trading posts they established became major cities and highways for western migration.
Trappers helped form one of North America's earliest corporations, the Hudson Bay Co., in 1670. A remnant of that company remains today, but more about that later.
Some earned fortunes, became celebrities, even.
Today's trappers keep a lower profile.
The demand for fur isn't what it was in Bridger's day – newer, lighter materials keep us warm now – and much of the fur on today's market is farm-raised. Also, public sentiment has cooled on trapping, which some view as cruel and unnecessary.
But the spirit of the "mountain men" survives, and it runs strong in Pennsylvania.
Some 40,000 furtaker licenses were sold in the state last year, nearly double the amount sold in 2002. And while it is estimated that less than half of those license holders will set a trap line, those who did took close to 500,000 animals in 2011, ranking the commonwealth fourth among 49 states that allow trapping, according to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
"Pennsylvania has the highest density of trappers of any state on the Eastern Seaboard," said Greg Kohl, a receiving agent for the North American Fur Auction, who is based in Berks County.
Kohl, whose employer's roots trace back to the Hudson Bay Co. established under a charter issued by King Charles II, represents more than 700 trappers from the eastern half of Pennsylvania, as well as New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.
"One guy once told me the reason we're trappers is because we have a regressive gene," he said. "I just love being outdoors. When trapping season comes you're out there every day."
Trapping is not pretty. The animals caught by trappers must be killed, cleaned and skinned. But Kohl and Lynch note the same arguments apply to hunting and fishing.
Modern trappers are highly regulated, better trained, and use humane methods to capture prey, they said.
The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which represents state and federal regulatory bodies, says trapping is good for conservation and sustaining wildlife health and diversity: "Regulated trapping is an important way for biologists to collect data about wildlife including information about wildlife diseases like rabies that can also affect people."
Critics, such as Born Free USA, a nonprofit that opposes trapping, argue that oversight is weak, laws often are ignored, and that non-targeted animals are still dying.
The organization ranks states based on 11 criteria and gives each a letter grade. Pennsylvania earned a D+, failing in all but three categories. The state earned approval for requiring trapper IDs and education programs, but failed for not requiring daily trap checks, trapper reports and allowing leg-hold traps.
Neighboring states did the same or better: Delaware, C; Maryland, D+; New Jersey, C+; and New York, C-. Only Texas earned an F.
Emotions about trapping can lead to confrontations.
Several years ago Lynch was featured in an article about trapping in The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the story offered a fair representation of what he did, one reader threatened him over the phone.
"She basically said, 'I found out where you live. I'm going to come and take care of you.'"
He eventually had to notify the police, who intervened. He never heard from the woman again. And while the incident did not convince Lynch to hide his hobby — he agreed to this interview — he shields those he works with, such as the farmers, so they are not harassed.
Shortly after sharing the story, he pulls up to one of his traps and sees a red fox looking at him over the untrimmed grass.
It's a young female. From the cab of the truck, it looks like she's resting. Lynch points out her calm demeanor.
"People think, 'Oh, man, they must be freaking out,'" he said. "Really? Does she look like she's freaking out to you?"
Lynch's foot-hold traps are toothless, designed to hold the animal, not harm it. Though getting caught is ultimately fatal, the trapper's goal is a pelt that can be sold to make clothing — a high-quality red fox pelt can fetch up to $70 at auction. There's no advantage to a device that mangles the animal.
Death comes swiftly, usually with a .22-caliber bullet to the head, or, in the case of the fox, with a tap on the snout from a club. The blow knocks the animal out. A second blow on the neck kills it.
It's over in seconds. There is no blood.
Sport Is Misunderstood
Trappers like Lynch and Kohl say most people don't know anything about trapping other than what they've seen in Walt Disney films. And part of the reason may be its lack of visibility.
"I'm done by 6 o'clock in the morning," Lynch said. "Who would (have seen) me?"
Kohl talks about a cultural divide between urban and rural residents. Educators tend to come from urban backgrounds, where their only exposure to the practice is likely to be films and cartoons where trappers are depicted as cruel villains.
It's a perception the industry is trying to change.
Kohl is president of the Keystone Institute for Fur Bearer Education, a 5-year-old nonprofit group working to get education programs into schools.
"We know if we ever have any issue come up to ban trapping, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh can shut down the whole state, just by the number of votes," he said.
Lynch, who has been trapping since he was 12, teaches trapping at Delaware Valley College and Lehigh University.
He runs lines on a handful of farms in Berks County. He also traps beaver in Bucks County. He's been on some farms for nearly 15 years. Farmers tend to welcome trappers, particularly those worried about foxes or raccoons bothering their chickens or ducks, he said.
"We help a lot of people and it's on the trappers," he said. "It's not a tax thing."
Plenty Of Game
Two weeks ago Kohl was unloading shipping boxes from a 53-foot trailer.
It took nearly eight hours to complete the job, something he must do each year to prepare for the season.
The boxes will be used to ship the pelts he receives from his trappers to the North American Fur Auction headquarters in Stoughton, Wis.
Each box will hold up to 200 fox and raccoon furs. Last year Kohl shipped 19,000 red fox furs.
"We have the quantity," he said.
Pennsylvania red fox is considered commercial grade in quality. The highest quality fur has a rich, red color from shoulder to tail and comes from eastern Canada.
NAFA sells the furs — about 3.8 million of them — on consignment at an auction in Toronto, the third-largest in the world.
The price of a red fox pelt has risen sharply since last year, Kohl said, up to $53 from $10 to $12. At that price, the 19,000 pelts he collected last year would fetch more than $1 million.
Price is affected by several variables, including weather, but also by demand.
China and Russia are the two major buyers of wild fur, he said. China's growing middle class is driving prices higher, making it the one of the largest importers of ranch mink.
"Eventually, fur will be vogue again in the U.S.," Kohl said. "If it takes off, the fur market will tremendously grow."
Information from: Reading Eagle, www.readingeagle.com