ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- Todd Roggenkamp was 6 years old when his dad gave him his first traps under the Christmas tree. He was hooked from there.
Roggenkamp’s father was a trapper for nearly 60 years. Now 50 years old, Roggenkamp has trapped most of his own life, running mink lines as big as 300 sets that required constant work from dawn until dusk. Trapping is something that has connected him to the outdoors from the first long-tailed weasel he and his father caught that Christmas break 44 years ago.
“It’s very hard to put into words what it’s done for me,” Roggenkamp said. “Trapping, hunting, any of those outdoors pursuits -- it’s about the experience. It’s about what you get to see, what you get to learn ... I’ve seen all sorts of different species. To see that going on in its natural setting, it gives you a sense of your place. I think you can learn so much from it.”
Roggenkamp, who lives in Breezy Point near Brainerd, is the president of the Minnesota Trappers Association. He is also the assistant director of education for the Safari Club International Foundation, where he develops programs and teaches about how hunting plays a vital role in conservation.
John Erb of Grand Rapids is similar to Roggenkamp in that trapping played a vital role in how he chose to live his professional life.
Erb is a furbearer/wolf research scientist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He was 15 years old growing up surrounded by agriculture fields in north-central Iowa.
There were just enough drainage ditches and little farmsteads for him to trap muskrats, raccoons, minks and a few foxes. Erb did not come from a trapping family, but his involvement in it spurred a curiosity that got him excited about wildlife management.
“It’s hard to explain to people,” Erb said. “Some don’t like trapping, but to me, there’s a deeper value and meaning. It never is about the killing. It’s part of my lifestyle, what I see as my culture. We certainly take the issues that concern other people, and we take them seriously.”
Erb and Roggenkamp are part of a small but dedicated group of trappers in Minnesota that has seen its participation numbers dwindle to concerning levels.
A total of 6,217 trapping licenses were sold in the state in 2019, the last year full numbers were available. That is the fewest licenses sold since 2009 (6,158).
The DNR has tracked trapping license sales back to 1928 when 33,928 were sold. Its high mark came in 1946 with 53,899 trappers in the state. Even at its peak, that is nowhere near the 351,659 resident deer hunters who took part in the 2019 firearms season or the nearly 1.4 million angling licenses that are typically sold in Minnesota every year.
“You know how many people I run into who say, ‘I didn’t even know trapping still existed.’ That’s the most common statement I hear from people,” Roggenkamp said.
Fur prices are at incredible lows right now with pelts of some species hardly able to sell. A product of an oversupply in the market and not enough demand, which was hurt further due to slowing economies around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There have been many studies that look at trapper motivations. Almost never does the money they can make in selling furs rank in the top few in order of importance of why they trap.
“I know some people won’t get this, but to many people, trapping is not just some activity,” Erb said. “I hate the word ‘recreation.’ It’s part of a lifestyle that’s tied to close interaction with the land, time with family, self sufficiency in a whole lot of things. Money might play a role, but there’s a baseline motivation.”
Roggenkamp said a big factor in dropping participation numbers and what he feels is dwindling support of trapping stems from the changed dynamics of Minnesota’s population.
“You look at the majority of our population, we’re now finding that no longer does the majority live in rural areas,” Roggenkamp said. “The majority now live in suburban, urban, inner city settings. As a result of that, we’re getting more and more people who do not hold the views that the traditional Minnesotans did. They don’t see trapping as something that should be accepted or tolerated within our state.”
Fighting the stereotypes
Trapping consistently gets lower approval ratings from the general public than hunting and fishing does in the United States.
In a study conducted by Responsive Management and the National Shooting Sports Foundation in 2019, 52% of Americans approved of regulated trapping, while 31% disapproved.
Attitudes were influenced by the motivation of trappers, with more respondents approving of trapping for wildlife restoration, population control, food and protection of property. In that same survey, 80% of Americans approved of legal hunting and 93% approved of legal recreational fishing.
“You’re going to get a lot of people who say, ‘I’m never going to trap,’” Roggenkamp said. “The important thing is getting them to understand it needs to be there.”
License sales from hunting, trapping and fishing go toward state wildlife agencies like the Minnesota DNR that help fund, among other things, habitat projects and wildlife research.
“Trapping, depending upon species, can play a role in management,” Erb said. “(The DNR) relies on trappers sometimes for wildlife research projects. We collect a lot of data from harvested animals. It gets us very low cost but good data that helps us understand species biology and improves management.”
Erb said the two most broad-level concerns he hears about trapping center around animal welfare and trap selectivity. Backlash from the catching of domestic pets specifically is something that trappers deal with frequently.
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“(Trappers) are supposed to be held to a higher level of ethics and responsibility...The dog and trap issues we have a lot of times don’t happen on public land. They do happen on public, but many of them happen on private,” Roggenkamp said. “Where is the responsibility of the pet owner to make sure their dog isn’t running on private land that I have permission to lawfully trap on from the landowner? There are more dogs hurt or killed every day by cars in the state of Minnesota than there ever are by traps over years. But we never hear about that, and people are OK with that. It’s a contradiction of meaning.”
The DNR’s hunting and trapping regulations booklet dedicates nine pages to trapping.
Various laws are in place in part to reduce conflict with other user groups and limit accidental catches of domestic animals and non-targeted wildlife species.
"My concern is our furbearers are demeaned in value to the point where we just catch them to get rid of them and throw them away...If we keep going down the road we’re going down, that’s the road we’re going to end up living in where trapping will become a form of nuisance control."
- Todd Roggenkamp, Minnesota Trappers Association president
A recent example came two years ago when starting dates for fisher, marten and bobcat season where body-grip traps are often used was pushed back to later in the winter. The idea was to maximize dog avoidance by minimizing overlap with grouse season and when dog owners tend to be out and about more during better weather conditions earlier in the year.
Newer trappers born after Dec. 31, 1989, have to obtain a trapper education certificate that includes a mandatory field training portion.
“(Trapping) is probably more regulated than anything. Like any activity, sometimes unfortunate things can happen,” Erb said. “Sometimes it’s simply because somebody was illegal. Other times it’s a pure, unfortunate accident where there is something to be learned and improved on.”
Joe Albert, the communications coordinator for the DNR’s enforcement division, said that the DNR issues fewer than 100 trapping-related citations or warnings in a given year. While not at all an exact comparison due to many more anglers participating, the DNR issued 2,084 citations and 3,550 warnings for fishing violations through the first six months of 2019.
“A bad apple spoils the bushel basket. Everybody has those,” Roggenkamp said. “We’re always going to have a percentage (of trappers) that say I don’t care what anybody says or thinks, I’m going to just do it. I can tell you this -- those are the guys who are going to be the first ones to scream when what they love to do gets taken away from them. It falls upon us to always provide the best view to the public of what we do. Does a lot of it come down to ethics? Absolutely.”
What is trapping?
Both Erb and Roggenkamp feel there is a lot of misinformation about trapping that stems from many people simply not understanding exactly how it works.
“When people say, ‘Trapping is easy.’ It is not,” Roggenkamp said. “You have to know the animal. You have to know its habits. You have to know where it lives, why it does what it does. Then you have to put a trap that in a lot of cases is very small, in a space where that animal is going to step directly on the pan, the trigger, whatever it is you want to call it to be able to restrain it so you can harvest it. That is not easy to do.”
Public opinion polls have consistently shown higher approval ratings among the general public for hunting when the primary motivation is to obtain food. That is likely at the crux of why trapping gets lower marks, but some trappers do eat their catches.
“A person can provide off of the animals they trap,” Roggenkamp said. “I know of trappers who have lived off of beaver ... When it’s prepared the right way, it’s outstanding.”
There are food markets that exist for furbearers, with beaver, raccoon and muskrats being some of the more popular species known for their meat. Trappers can sometimes get their carcasses into those markets, but challenges exist. Most of the markets are in the south and some states do not allow the transport of certain species.
“The other challenge is getting them where they need to go,” Roggenkamp said. “If you have an agreement worked out with the guy you’re dealing with, he may come get them from you if you have a large enough quantity. But it has to be worth his while or your while to drive them there.”
Many carcasses go back into the wild to be used by other critters.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re wasting.’ I always remind people that nature does not waste anything,” Erb said. “All the carcasses that I don’t directly use feed plenty of eagles and foxes. There isn’t an ounce of any of those animals that is wasted.”
Trappers also have options on what they do with their pelts. Low prices are driving some to work with their own furs to create a finished product to keep.
Individual fur buyers -- people who purchase pelts from trappers to then sell into other markets -- are becoming harder to find in the state, Roggenkamp said. Many have gone out of business, but where available, trappers can sell to individual buyers in a variety of ways from the whole carcass of the animal, to skinned but not fleshed, to the dried product.
Furs can also be picked up to go to an auction house. The biggest of those today is the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, Ontario, Canada. Buyers from the auction house come from all over the world to produce garments that are then sold within their own countries or abroad.
“If you look around the world, most fur that is being worn is not being worn as a luxury item,” Roggenkamp said. “It’s being worn as a utilitarian garment. Whether it be a set of gloves, a jacket, a vest, whatever it is. We’re producing a product that is the most green, renewable resource you can find. People don’t often think about fur that way.”
Trapping as a management tool
The Minnesota DNR has some level of data on every furbearer species in the state that tracks abundance.
A carnivore scent station survey done statewide every year since 1975 tracks trends in foxes, coyotes, wolves, bobcats, raccoons, skunks and domestic dogs and feral cats. A winter snow track survey in northern Minnesota looks at trends in populations of fishers, martens, bobcats, wolves, red foxes, grey foxes, coyotes, snowshoe hares and weasels.
There are currently four furbearer species in Minnesota that have harvest limits where trappers must register their catches -- fishers, martens, bobcats and otters. Population levels differ depending on the area of the state, but Erb said raccoons and beavers -- two popular species that trappers target in many regions -- are likely at an all-time high.
“Raccoons are certainly near their peak levels,” Erb said. “There’s periodically little disease outbreaks that knock them down, but by and large raccoons are very abundant. We don’t actually have a survey anymore outside of monitoring harvest statistics, but all indicators are that our beaver population is abundant and increasing demands to deal with problems...nuisance complaints with beaver are probably at all-time highs.”
Erb said targeted trapping can play a role in a better balanced wildlife ecosystem, but it is seldom simple. Removing some nest predators like raccoons and skunks might benefit ground-nesting birds in an area of farm country where all that is left is fence lines and road ditches, but the underlying issue there is often how humans changed the habitat landscape more so than the predators themselves.
“I always like to point out that all these species, even if there were ups and downs, they got along before humans showed up,” Erb said. “I never like to get too much into the idea that wildlife needs this. The difference now is we’ve altered the landscape in so many ways that has favored some species -- raccoons -- the more adaptable species that can live in multiple areas.”
Trapping can play a role in management, Erb said, but it’s also part of the DNR’s mission to provide people with a wide range of outdoor opportunities in the state.
“Whether that’s canoeing, bird watching, hunting, trapping, fishing. I think the more people who get to enjoy nature in the way they like to enjoy it, the better off conservation is,” Erb said. “Once you start to tell people you can’t do this or that, people stop caring.”
'Guarded optimism' for the future
Roggenkamp did not hesitate when asked what his greatest concern is for trapping in the future.
“Declining numbers. Hands down,” he said.
Participation numbers and acceptance from the general public for hunting, fishing and trapping are important politically as legislation around them comes up every year. State agencies and outdoor groups around the country have placed an emphasis on recruitment, retention and reactivation to try to get more people engaged in these outdoor pursuits.
Hunting organizations like the National Deer Association are changing the conversation about hunting to knowing where one’s food comes from as a way to bring in new adult hunters. Trapping is seeing a similar uptick in people wanting to provide for themselves, Roggenkamp said, but how can an activity that has had more than 10,000 participants in Minnesota just once since 1989 get enough people involved to move the needle?
“That’s the million dollar question. I wish I had the answer to it because if I did, we’d be doing it,” Roggenkamp said. “I don’t know if there’s a silver bullet. How do we get more hunters and fishermen? We try to get them engaged. We try to show them how to do it. The problem is with trapping not being as widely accepted, it creates the next challenge with that.”
Roggenkamp has “guarded optimism” as he thinks about the future of trapping.
“My concern is our furbearers are demeaned in value to the point where we just catch them to get rid of them and throw them away,” Roggenkamp said. “You tell me what’s better. That we’re catching the resource and we’re utilizing it, or we’re catching the resource and throwing it in the garbage. If we keep going down the road we’re going down, that’s the road we’re going to end up living in where trapping will become a form of nuisance control.”
Continuing to educate is the key, Roggenkamp said. His hope for the future lies in even those who will never trap at least being willing to listen.
“We’re going to continue to fight against the notion that we don’t need trapping,” Roggenkamp said. “Ultimately, we do need wildlife management and trapping is a part of that.”