PARSONSFIELD ,Maine — Legs protected by hip waders and hands by rubber gloves, Brian Cogill kneels in fresh snow and scoops slush from the hole he chiseled through the ice on a brook above a beaver dam as he peers into the frigid waters below.
“This is like Christmas time, opening up a package,” Cogill says, seeing that the trap he set five days earlier had sprung.
Moments later, he pulls up a body-gripping Conibear trap that snapped the neck of a 30-pound beaver, killing it instantly.
It was a productive morning for the Grizzly Adams lookalike who checked 10 of his traps in two locations and came away with four animals: three beavers and an otter that he will dry, skin and stretch into pelts for sale at an upcoming fur auction.
Even as Cogill carries on a centuries-old tradition that played an important role in the European settlement of North America, today’s trappers find themselves under attack by critics who regard the practice as cruel and are pushing to have it banned.
The latest confrontation will come next month when a federal judge in Bangor hears a lawsuit that seeks to prohibit trapping that could endanger Canada lynx, a cat listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Cogill plans to attend the hearing.
Proud and defiant, the 45-year-old ex-Marine doesn’t soft-pedal his favorite recreation. He displays it with a Maine accent on the “BVATRPA” license plate on his pickup truck, which also sports a PETA sticker with an upfront message: People Eating Tasty Animals.
Beaver, the largest rodent in North America, is Cogill’s favorite quarry and accounts for the largest share of the furbearer harvest in Maine.
State pelt-tagging records over the past decade show years in which beaver outnumbered bobcat, coyote, fisher, red fox, grey fox, marten, mink and otter combined.
On a bright, sunny morning after a storm that dumped 6 inches of snow, Cogill and his son, Brian Jr., 14, donned snowshoes and trekked a quarter mile off a woods road to a brook where beaver colonies have long flourished.
A sign of their presence is the familiar beaver house, a den that the industrious critters build out of mud and sticks and which are now covered with snow. Cogill scouts out those lodges and beaver dams as he chooses the best locations to set his traps.
A Portland Public Works employee, Cogill could never see himself working in an office and says trapping feeds into his love for the outdoors.
“It’s seeing things out there that most people never see, knowing the animals, just being out in the woods,” he said.
He is one of roughly 4,000 licensed trappers in Maine and an estimated 150,000 nationwide, a figure dwarfed by the 12.5 million Americans who hunt. While the number of trappers may fluctuate according to the market price for pelts, few make a living selling fur unless they combine it with pest control work like trapping rac-coons for suburban homeowners.
“It’s really tough in today’s world to make a living at it if that’s all you do is fur trap,” said Kraig Kaatz of Oak Forest, Ill., president of the National Trappers Association. “Nuisance work is by far more lucrative.”
Cogill isn’t in it for the money. He has trapped about 85 beaver this season and he’ll sell them later at a fur auction. Beaver pelts, on average, have fetched from $14 to $21 in recent years, and the slumping economy that has reduced demand for fur is likely to keep that figure on the low side this season.
Not all of the time Cogill devotes to his hobby is spent in the woods.
Working in his barn, he skins the carcasses, cleans the fat from the skin and then stretches the pelts by nailing them to oval boards.
“Beaver trapping is a whole lot of hard work,” he said. “The easiest part of it is catching the animal.”
For all that work, he’s happy to get back what he spends to gas up his truck, buy new traps and pay other expenses. He jokes that trappers can wind up making 25 cents an hour, a reason, perhaps, why laid-off workers haven’t flocked to the sport during the recession.
Cogill and his family also eat what he catches, turning it into beaver stew, beaver jerky and chunks of beaver that they marinate and put on the grill. He saves the beavers’ leathery paddles for a craftsman who turns them into knife sheaths. The castor, or musk sac, is sold to perfume makers and teeth can be used for jewelry.
This season, like the last one, has not been easy for beaver trappers. State figures based on pelt-tagging records show that 6,357 beaver were taken last year, or half the number from the year before.
Trappers say heavy snow that hit before ponds and brooks could ice up has kept activity down, as have low pelt prices and the weak economy.
“If we get snow early, it gets very dangerous,” said Cogill, who has fallen into the icy water face-first. “People have been known to drown or get hypothermia, and it’s not worth risking your life.”
Many of the people who take up trapping are introduced to it by a father or uncle. Cogill grew up in Cohasset, Mass., where his dad took him trapping for muskrat in bogs and swamps along the state’s South Shore. Today, however, his trapping options in his native state are limited.
Voters in Massachusetts passed a ballot question in 1996 that outlawed body-gripping traps, a decision that led to a doubling of the state’s beaver population and a flood of complaints about property damage blamed on beavers, according to Laura Hajduk, the state’s furbearer biologist.
Other states that have banned or severely restricted trapping include Washington, California, Colorado, Arizona, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Florida, according to the Humane Society of the United States, which has spearheaded the anti-trapping campaign.
“Leghold traps, body-crushing traps and snares are the most common traps used by the fur industry, and they not only can cause suffering in their intended victims, but often catch the wrong animal, including threatened or endangered animals, pet dogs and cats and hunting dogs,” said Pierre Grzybowski, manager of the society’s free-free campaign.
Daryl DeJoy of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine, which seeks to ban trapping to protect lynx, maintains that trapping is unnecessary. “We shouldn’t be killing for fun, for recreation,” he said. As for fur, he says few people wear it these days, and “polar fleece is a better insulator.”
Trapping advocates say animal rights groups base their anti-trapping stance on emotion, ignoring the emergence of more humane trapping methods and the training that trappers in Maine and other states are required to undergo before they can obtain a license.
Trappers and biologists also point to the role of trapping in wildlife management, saying it makes for healthier populations and controls damage caused by animals in built-up areas.
Early this month, the Maine Legislature took up a bill to allow town officials to shoot beavers, a response to increased costs for road repairs and other damage.
“As humans, we have altered the habitat and the landscape, which has been beneficial for some species,” says John DePue, Maine’s furbearer biologist. “So without trapping, we don’t have a tool to manage those populations.”