The sun glinted off ice crystals left in the ditches by the frost the night before as we rumbled down a West-River back road under a crystal-clear cornflower blue sky. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be spending New Year’s Day checking a trapline. But, after spending two years overseeing the development of a trapping education program for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, and understanding that our department didn’t have any digital trapping resources to speak of, I understood the value of the opportunity presented to me when Mark and Kyle invited me to come along. So, equipped with my camera, a healthy dose of curiosity, and a simple joy at the mild and clear winter day unfolding around us, we set out to look for coyotes.
I did not grow up in a family that hunted, nor did we trap. I have a degree in conservation biology, so I have a baseline understanding of the importance of wildlife management strategies to help balance the overwhelming impact of human-wildlife interactions on the landscape. As an adult I’ve come to love hunting, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a certain amount of skepticism around trapping. Stereotypes and misconceptions run rampant around any wildlife-harvest, with trapping at the very top of the list for most heavily criticized, and I was no stranger to those influences. But, as with any strongly-held opinions, I firmly believe they should be based in fact, not conjecture. I trusted no one more than my friends, ethical stewards of the land to their core, to help unfold the world of trapping for me.
We checked each trap, freeing up frozen sets, re-setting sprung traps, and pulling traps from ineffective locations. I watched closely as my friends dug, anchored, bedded, sifted soil, baited and camouflaged their traps with great pride. The camaraderie and enjoyment surrounding the activity was palpable, but above all things, their appreciation and respect for the elusive animal they pursued shone through it all.
Mark invited me to spring a trap with my hand, and when I looked at him sideways, he demonstrated and sprung one himself. After watching his example, I pressed my fist into the center of a No. 2.5 foothold trap and was surprised at its gentle grip on my hand. And just like that, slowly, misconceptions I had long held started to slip away.
Kyle gently sifted soil onto his newly bedded foothold trap, careful not to place a hand or knee nearby where it might leave his scent. Watching as he placed small rocks and clods of dirt and grass around the disguised set trap with the hopes of guiding a coyote’s foot to an area the size of a deck of cards, I was struck by the art and hope invested in creating each trap set. Here we were, in a vast and expansive landscape, with uninterrupted views to the horizon and the wild hope of coaxing one of nature’s most suspicious, clever, and wide-ranging creatures into stepping on a space no bigger than my fist. I was enchanted. The oldest and deepest definitions of “fair chase” trickled into my mind. I watched Kyle smudge stinking lure on some grass at the top of the hole in front of the foothold, and then set bait down in the hole, covering it with a matted knot of cattail leaves.
The end of the day brought a deep sense of satisfaction and a wealth of knowledge and understanding I had never really expected. I have now seen, and participated in, an activity that can only be done successfully by people who truly understand and know wildlife, who have taken the time to familiarize themselves with creature habits, behavior, curiosity, interests, habitat, and ecological impact, and who have nothing shy of a pure joy and love derived from spending time in wild spaces.
As with all conservation activities, it takes people willing to challenge their own perspectives and try something new to ensure that the future of these activities exists. It also takes experts being willing to extend their knowledge and hospitality to others, to share their craft and to mentor. If you are interested in how to get youth in your life involved with trapping in your community, reach out to your local 4H advisor and ask about ETHICS SD. If you as an adult would like more resources to pursue trapping, please watch for trapping education classes available at the Game, Fish and Parks Outdoor Campuses in Rapid City and Sioux Falls or follow the Game, Fish and Parks education Youtube playlist.
(Sponsored by Emily Kiel with the S.D. Game, Fish and Parks, promoting the art, tradition, and outdoor activity of trapping.)