Every job has its drawbacks, but as a contract trapper for Delta Waterfowl, Brian Poncelet often deals with something few others face on a daily basis: Skunks. For the last 12 years, the 62-year-old Saskatchewan resident has spent four months each spring trapping for the conservation group. In a typical season, he will catch upwards of 200 or more animals from a 16-square mile tract. More than a third are skunks.
Poncelet and Dennis Carter, a North Dakota farmer and trapper, are paid by Delta to catch and remove predators for research projects that examine the relationships between predators, habitat and duck nest success. Delta launched its first predator study in 1994 and has been conducting various other studies in Canada and North Dakota since.
The two typically use foot-hold and body-gripping traps, but Poncelet's most recent trapping effort took place in a populated area of Manitoba. Instead of traps that might harm domestic animals, he used cage-style live traps. That meant many of the animals he caught, including skunks, were not only alive, but also unhappy.
"If you know what you are doing, you don't have to worry about the skunks too much. I've probably only been sprayed a couple of times during the 12 years I've been trapping for Delta," says Poncelet. "And those weren't too bad. The smell doesn't bother me."
Carter, 55, figures he gets blasted about once a year, no matter how careful he tries to be. Sometimes, he plays the wind wrong or just lets his guard down. But like Poncelet, he doesn't mind the odor. After 50 years of trapping, it is just part of the job.
"The one thing I can't stand are the ticks. They were awful this year. I bet I pulled 30 or 40 a day off me this spring," he says.
Despite the occasional skunk and the frequent ticks, both men love what they do. Not only do they get to work outside, they like playing a role in valuable research that has long-term implications. Most of all, they just love to trap. Carter and Poncelet run trap lines during the winter and both work as nuisance trappers as well.
Cash for Furs
The trapping efforts start in mid-March, which can help put a dent in the predator population before ducks arrive on the nesting grounds. They continue for four months, wrapping up in mid-July. Catch rates fall dramatically later in the season, a sign that the predator removal efforts are effective.
"Most of the animals our trappers catch, especially raccoons and badgers, still have good fur at the start of the trapping effort, so they do everything they can to salvage the furs. Trappers tend to be some of the most resourceful and frugal people I've ever met. They don't like to waste anything if they can help it," says Joel Brice, Delta's senior director of conservation.
That means in addition to setting, checking and resetting traps, Poncelet and the rest of the Delta trappers have a lot of skinning, fleshing and stretching to do in order to prepare the furs for sale. Both men also extract the essence from dead skunks with a hypodermic needle and then sell it to lure manufacturers as a cover scent for deer hunters or an attractor scent for trappers.
Poncelet will set upwards of 250 traps on a single 16-square mile territory, checking each at least every 72 hours, the legal time limit in Manitoba. It's a full-time job that often starts at daylight and ends late at night, four months straight with hardly a day off. For their work, Delta's contract trappers receive about $23,000. That may seem like a lot of money, but Poncelet, Carter and the others have to pay for all their own expenses, including maintenance, gas, traps, lures and other supplies. They are also required to use an ATV.
"I probably put about eight or 10 thousand miles on my truck during the four months I'm trapping for Delta," says Carter, who covers a 36-square mile territory. "It's a full-time job."
Despite the long, arduous hours and low pay, Brice gets resumes from trappers all over the country who want to participate in various research projects. Usually, though, he hires locals for the simple fact that they know the land and the animals that live there.
"I was out checking traps with Dennis Carter one day and we were sitting on the tailgate of a truck eating lunch. I asked him where he lived. He pointed and said, 'About a mile that way,'" recalls Brice. "This is where he grew up. He knows this land as well as anyone, which really helps with the program's efficiency."
Finding local trappers is growing more difficult. The average age of the 30 or so trappers Delta has hired since 1994 is "50-something," says Brice, and just one was younger than 40. Fewer people are trapping these days, because it's time-consuming and just plain hard work. It's no longer very profitable, either. Fur prices were high enough in the 1970s and '80s that a dedicated trapper could actually make decent money.
Thanks largely to the animal rights movement, those days are gone, but Poncelet and Carter agree that it isn't about the money. They trap because it is in their blood, even if a little skunk oil gets mixed in.
If you would like to donate to Delta Waterfowl's predator management program, please visit DeltaWaterfowl.org. All contributions will be used to manage and establish sites across 23,040 acres.