On the rocky banks of the Clearwater River, David Busta uses a clamp to carefully compress the springs of a steel trap, a mass of coils and bars that's not unlike the traps used in Idaho for centuries.
"You want to make it look like another beaver's been here," he says, pulling out a pocket knife and carving up cottonwood branches to resemble the bite marks of the watery rodent.
For added effect, he fishes out of his plaid jacket a jar full of castor — a musky substance, made from the scent glands of a beaver, that has the consistency of Dijon mustard — and dunks one of the branches into it. Perfume and makeup are made from beaver castor, a fact Busta delights in telling students in his trapping class.
"The girls that are in the class, I let them smell the jar and say, 'You're putting that on your face,'" says Busta, 52, who wears camouflage pants and a weathered Idaho Trapper Education hat. With his trap set, he plunges it into the river underneath a strategically placed branch.
If all goes according to plan, the beaver won't even know what happened when the trap's steel jaw slams into the back of its neck.
Each time someone like Busta sets a trap, he places a bet that he knows exactly where an animal will swim or place its foot. Each trip to check the trap brims with excitement that the bet will pay off.
In recent years, these bets have been paying handsomely, driven by Russian and Chinese consumers hungry for fur from mink, beaver, muskrat and coyote caught in the backwoods of Idaho and elsewhere. According to the International Fur Trade Federation, the value of the global fur industry grew to $40 billion by 2013, up from the $11 billion it was valued at in 2002. The implications have been felt in Idaho. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of trapping licenses more than doubled to 2,342, according to state figures. In the Panhandle region, the number more than tripled, from 162 to 506.
"I've been shocked," says Busta. "I made $125 on a coyote. That's a lot of money on one coyote." Pelts for marten, a weasel-like creature, have sold for $80 apiece, he says. With the possibility of catching 10 marten in a day, Busta says that, for some, trapping can be more profitable than a conventional day at work.
This demand has breathed new interest into the centuries-old activity, bringing out inexperienced trappers hoping to bag a thousand-dollar bobcat pelt.
But these traps can't tell the difference between a bobcat and a house cat, or an eagle, a dog or other wildlife that's fallen into them. Environmental groups are alarmed that trapping is hurting wildlife with fragile populations and have called for new regulations. With a recent court victory for groups calling for new trapping restrictions, trappers worry that the activity will all but halt.
Back at the river, with his trap loaded, Busta makes his way back to his mud-caked Subaru Forester. He recently caught a fat 50-pound beaver here on the Clearwater, southeast of Lewiston. He skinned it and sent the pelt off to auction in Canada.
"To me, [trapping season is] four months of Christmas," he says.
Some of the Inland Northwest's first settlers were trappers who arrived in the 1800s, in search of beaver pelts that were in high demand in Europe for their softness and durability. Trappers set up trading outposts on Lake Pend Oreille, as well as on the Kootenai and Spokane rivers, and other locations that grew into towns and cities.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, fur remained in demand. First ladies, including Mamie Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy, were known to don fur coats. Marilyn Monroe wore fur. But beginning in the 1960s, animal rights groups, outraged over the killing of animals for their skins, waged anti-fur campaigns. Activists threw paint on fur-coat wearers. Celebrities swore it off. The public soured on fur.
But not in Russia and China.
"Their societies have never been led astray about utilizing natural resources," says Patrick Carney, president of the Idaho Trappers Association. "Fur is a natural resource, and [trapping is about] managing the number of animals in the wild, so they're not starving or getting [disease]."
Russia, flush with oil money, and China, with a rapidly growing economy, have seen their fur markets grow. At its peak in 2013, North American Fur Auctions, a Toronto-based fur seller and consignor, filled its auction rooms to capacity with a record 700 buyers from Russia, China and elsewhere who came to rub samples of skins between their thumbs and forefingers and eagerly raise their hands during bidding. Every raccoon and beaver skin sold at the auction, with wild fur sales totaling $90 million, a high not seen in decades. A bobcat pelt reached record prices, going for $600 on average. The best bobcat pelts, soft white fur peppered with black spots, sold for $3,000.
Rob Cahill, NAFA's senior vice president for marketing, says that it's not just the upper classes in these countries wearing fur, but also middle-income consumers who covet less expensive fur hats and jackets. In China alone, he says, there are 10,000 to 15,000 retail stores that sell fur.
"Just catch a few bobcats and you have half a car," says Bill Seybold, Clearwater Region hunter education coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, of the mentality of some new trappers. This influx of new trappers, he says, has come with problems.
Caught In The Middle
Traps don't discriminate.
In recent years, eagles, ravens, hawks, deer and other animals have been caught in traps. Many have died. According to numbers from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, trappers reported 560 animals unintentionally trapped in 2011. In 2015 that number was 877.
In 2014, a black bear cub was caught in a foot trap set for a wolf. The same year, two dogs were killed in conibear or "body-gripping" traps used on beavers, muskrat and mink. In response, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission considered new rules, but instead opted for increased educational outreach.
"I've found traps where there shouldn't be traps, like in city parks," says Busta. "I've found traps along trail systems."
What especially concerns environmental groups is endangered or rare species falling into these traps. In 2014, a coalition of environmental groups –– including the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Clearwater and WildEarth Guardians –– filed a lawsuit alleging that the increase in trapping was causing Canada lynx, listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act, to be inadvertently trapped and that state officials weren't doing enough to address the problem. Last month, a judge agreed, ordering the state to come up with new rules within 90 days to better protect the lynx.
Environmental groups have also raised concern about other species falling into traps. Last year, a wolverine, a species for which environmentalists are seeking protected status, was killed in a trap. Fishers, a member of the weasel family that environmental groups also want listed as endangered, have seen a spike in numbers accidentally trapped. According to numbers obtained by Western Watersheds Project, 18 fishers were caught in traps in the 2008-09 trapping season, a number that rose to 59 in the 2013-14 season.
"Some of them are killed; some of them are released," says Ken Cole, Western Watersheds Project's Idaho director. "But there is no real way to know whether they survive after they're released."
Kristin Ruether, senior attorney with Western Watersheds Project, says that environmental groups want a ban on conibear traps and snares and a requirement that trappers check their traps daily, instead of within the 72 hours currently required.
Idaho is one of 19 states that have some sort of guarantee to hunt, fish or trap in their constitutions. But despite the state's 2012 constitutional amendment guaranteeing that trapping "shall forever be preserved for the people," Delbert Jepson — president of Intermountain Fur Harvesters, a trappers group whose 35 members span Eastern Washington and North Idaho — worries that environmental groups are using courts to manage wildlife and pushing trappers out of the woods as a consequence.
"The constitution says they can't take our trapping away, but they can make it so miserable that nobody will go," he says. "It's a way to stop trapping."
Jepson claims that only four lynx have been caught in traps in the past 15 years, one of which was killed. Trappers often place their traps in remote locations, and he says that requiring daily checks would make trapping unfeasible.
In 2000, Washington voters approved a ballot initiative that outlawed traps commonly used in Idaho, such as body-gripping, steel-jaw legholds and snares. The initiative allows the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to issue permits for use of these traps, but only after making a written finding that non-lethal cage traps were inadequate in protecting the health and safety of people from a wildlife problem. Trappers with these permits still can't sell the fur from these traps.
Cage traps are now the primary option for Washington trappers. Bernie Nelson, the vice-president of Intermountain Fur Harvesters who lives in Usk, Washington, near the Idaho border, says that cage traps are ineffective in managing some species, such as coyotes that harass livestock. In Washington, trapper participation has been on the decline, according to state numbers.
Nelson also says the 2000 initiative took away some humane and effective traps. Since the 1970s, traps with jagged, unforgiving teeth have been abandoned in favor of what are billed as more humane options. Trappers argue that body-gripping traps kill their targets instantly. They say that foothold traps are so gentle, some trappers say they've found animals asleep in them.
Environmental groups disagree. Ruether says that even if an animal is accidentally trapped in a foothold trap it may look fine, but may not be. The animal may be severely dehydrated after spending days in the trap, she says, or a pregnant lynx may see its kittens die from the stress. In the winter, animals can freeze or catch frostbite while trapped, she says.
"Technically [conibear traps are] humane, but if you catch the wrong animal, you've killed it," adds Cole. (For its part, the American Veterinary Medical Association has deemed leghold traps "inhumane"; they have been banned in 88 countries and several U.S. states.)
Carter Niemeyer, a retired federal wildlife biologist who authored a memoir on trapping and reintroducing wolves in Idaho, submitted a written statement in the lynx lawsuit on behalf of the environmental groups. The statement provided evidence that animals caught in foothold traps can suffer bone damage after being released from those traps. He says that traps have improved, but "if an animal languishes for three days, a lot of those improvements are nullified because the animal is not getting water or eating."
"My argument has always been that if there is a 24-hour trap check, you really minimize the amount of injury that can happen to an animal," he says.
Currently, anyone applying for a wolf-trapping tag is required to take an education course. Jepson says that more trapper education, especially for newcomers, would solve many problems. He supports a legislative proposal requiring all new trappers to take a course before being issued a license.
"That's probably the reason the one lynx got killed, because of lack of education," he says. "It was someone who thought they had a bobcat."
As a state senator, Gary Schroeder supported Idaho's constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to trap and hunt. But now, he says, "If they closed trapping down in the whole state of Idaho, it wouldn't bother me one bit."
Now retired from the legislature, Schroeder dedicates his time to Moscow Hide and Fur, a company that buys pelts, antlers, skulls and other animal parts from trappers and at auctions, like one in Canada he just returned from. He sells his wares on the Internet to U.S. customers (getting through customs is too cumbersome) out of a 6,000-square-foot warehouse.
Schroeder says that his business model better controls variables, unlike trappers, who he says sometimes have unrealistic ideas of how much their fur is worth, and are rolling the dice by sending it to auction.
"When they ship to the auctions, they're gambling," he says. "They love gambling. They love shipping it off, and then like watching their lots sell. ... It's like running the trapline again."
Selling fur to Russia and China is a risky business, says Schroeder, pointing out that governments in both countries have tighter grips on their economies. Both are experiencing trouble. U.S.-backed sanctions are hurting the buying power of Russia's currency and China's economy is softening. That means that the boom days of trapping, which littered the backwoods with traps and sparked the outrage of environmental groups, are headed for a lull.
Cahill, of North American Fur Auctions, just wrapped up his company's auction. While there were some bright spots, particularly regarding coyote pelts, and strong interest from Greece, they're beginning to see demand from China and Russia weaken.
Even with the market beginning to shift, Busta says he'll continue to trap every season, regardless of fur prices. It's part of his lifestyle. At any given time, he has 200 traps set between Kooskia and Lewiston that he diligently checks during trapping season.
"To me," he says, "it's the experience of being outdoors that's the real prize." ♦
CORRECTION: This story originally misreported the number of animals unintentionally trapped in 2011 in Idaho. The correct number is 560.
CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to clarify comments from Ken Cole, Idaho director of the Western Watersheds Project, concerning conibear traps.