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One man says trapping helps prevent overpopulation

| Monday, June 5, 2006

Although he doesn't start his work day until 7 a.m., Paul Murray is usually out of bed and dressed for action around 3 or 4 a.m. as he sets out in bone-chilling darkness to check his trapline before going to work.

While most folks are snug in their beds, Murray is out in the woods checking his traps for fur-bearing animals. After a 10-hour work day at the Ford City Eljer plant, Murray puts in another few hours on his trapline before heading home. Once home, he spends several more hours in his fur shed, skinning his daily catch and putting raw pelts on stretchers so they will be ready for the big fur sale held in February.

"Trapping is just something that gets in your blood," Murray said. "For me, it gives me a chance to get out into the woods by myself. It also takes me back to a time when rugged pioneers roamed the woods of Western Pennsylvania in search of fur. The life of the old-time fur trappers was solitary and rugged. In many respects, it is still a solitary and rugged calling today."

However, several important differences separate Murray from his 18th and 19th century counterparts. For one, Murray has the luxury of running his trapline in a pickup truck. For another, he returns each night to his warm, snug Cowanshannock Township home and a hot supper.

"I cover a lot of miles of trapline using my truck," he said. "Because I run my line by vehicle, my traps are set near roads in places where furbearers are likely to visit. If I have a big catch for one day, it's no trick to haul it home in the back of my truck, and I can haul a lot of traps and equipment around too."

Murray's quarry consists of red and gray fox, coyotes, raccoons, mink and muskrats.

"Coon trapping is my favorite," he said. "They are not difficult to catch, and they are plentiful. In fact, we never seem to run out of racoon."

Murray said critics may feel that trapping is cruel and that nature should be allowed to "take its course." However, Murray, president of Pennsylvania Trappers District II, said allowing nature to take is course often means a cruel, lingering death due to overpopulation of fur-bearing animals and also increases the risk of spreading diseases such as distemper, mange or rabies.

"You know, it's funny. I've been trapping raccoons, for example, in the same areas for a number of years, and there never seems to be any fewer of them. But just imagine if no one trapped them. The population would explode, and we could have serious problems. Trappers do a great job when it comes to animal population and disease control, but I think few people are aware of just how vital our role is."

Trappers also play a role in the economy. Millions of dollars worth of raw furs are exported annually to European and Asian markets, and several million dollars more are sold in the United States. Global raw fur sales total more than $11 billion annually, Murray said.

"Although Russia has its own fur market, it can't produce enough to meet the demand, so Russia buys a lot of fur from the U.S.," he said. "A lot of the fur we trap also ends up in Western European markets and some in Asia."

Murray said modern trapping techniques allow trappers to catch only the quarry they are after, and not unwanted species, namely family pets.

"Traps have come a long way," he said. "We still use some leg-hold traps in certain areas, but I trap most of my raccoon with box traps. Catching a cat or dog is something that almost never happens, but if it does, I can immediately release the animal unharmed. Certain coon traps, such as the 'coon cuff' type traps sold under various brand names, are virtually guaranteed to catch no animals other than raccoon, because raccoons are the only animals that can insert their paws in the trap's tube to get at bait."

Murray said that although Pennsylvania game laws require trappers to check their traps once every 36 hours, good trappers check their lines once a day.

"I check half of my trapline before going to work and the other half on the way home," Murray said. "I guess I just learned good trapping habits from the time I began trapping when I was about 14 or 15 years old. I got away from trapping for a while, but about 10 years ago I began trapping again in earnest. Trapping involves some work the year around. In late summer, you begin to prepare and repair your traps, and in the early- to mid-fall you do a lot of preseason scouting. About mid-November fur becomes prime and you start to trap."

Murray said one of his greatest thrills, besides having a good season on the trapline, is passing his skills on to young people who express an interest in trapping.

"Every year for the past few years, District II has held a trapping course in Butler County. We'll have it again this year sometime in August. A lot of people, young and old, take the course to learn trapping fundamentals," he said. "Of course, there's a lot we can't teach them, things that require hands-on trapping during the season, but most of our members are willing to take anybody under their wing to teach them the basics of trapping and fur handling. One of the things I tell young people is that they won't get rich trapping, but if they grow to love the sport as we do, the rewards of being in the outdoors and outwitting nature, so to speak, are worth far more than mere money. It does take dedication and a deep commitment. Getting out of bed long before the sun rises in the winter and spending several hours each evening in the fur shed skinning your catch and preparing pelts for sale is something not everyone is willing to do."

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