Trapper Paul Stanolis of Witch Lake does most of his trapping in remote northeast Iron County

October 01, 2013

Historically, prior to 1870, the Upper Peninsula had a fur based economy. Since that time logging and mining have played a more important role in our economy. However, fur trapping remained an important part of the economy well into the 20th Century. For example, the furs in the Menominee Watershed (Michigan’s 4th largest watershed) were shipped downstream to Menominee to two large trading posts in Menominee and at Chappee Rapids.

Eventually, some fur bearers’ populations such as beaver, declined. This was in great part because beaver need early successional tree species like aspen and that type of tree was relatively rare during predevelopment times. The original surveyors recorded pre settlement tree species as part of each section’s original survey in the 1850’s. The tree species were overwhelmingly climax tree species like maple, hemlock and white pine that are not conducive to higher beaver and game populations. Many smaller watersheds were over 95% climax trees. Now we are in a much different tree habitat situation. Aggressive timber cutting along streams has altered the habitat to where trees like aspen make up large percentages of many watersheds. As a result beaver are now much more abundant than what they historically were. In the later 20th century declines in fur use and values caused the number of people participating in trapping to decline.

There are still some hardy individuals who carry on the trapping heritage. The trappers that annually practice their trade are not primarily motivated by the money they receive when they sell the furs. There are too many years where the fur price cannot cover all their costs, let alone their time to trap. Instead, they do it because they enjoy the time in the outdoors along the streams and trails of Upper Michigan.

As trapper Paul Stanolis of Witch Lake (Central UP) said “his greatest enjoyment is the anticipation of what might be in the next trap he will check”. Stanolis also really likes passing on the trapping skills that he learned through his life time to young motivated novice trappers.

Young trappers Dennis Mitchell and Nick Grabowski both sophomores in High School at Crystal Falls, are both working hard at learning the skills needed to effectively trap beavers, coyotes and some other fur bearers. Their parents help them as much as they can with transportation and support; however, not being trappers, the boys are mostly on their own learning trapping skills. The boys are learning the often subtle and finesse expertise of trapping the target beaver and other animals, and avoiding the non-target animals by trial and error. Some local conservation officers and natural resource managers have given the boys some assistance but recently some mentoring time was arranged for trapper Paul Stanolis to spend mentoring time with these two trapping novices.

Mitchell and Grabowski agree with trapper Stanolis, that there is great anticipation in seeing what is in the next trap they check. Mentoring the young trappers Stanolis spent considerable time demonstrating methods to maximize catch of beaver and how to avoid or minimize the non-target animal catch. Some non-target catch is inevitable when the target animal and non-target animal are very close in habits and behavior. An example of this is when trappers set for coyotes in this area. Wolf numbers are currently abundant enough that they can easily catch a wolf when targeting coyotes. Coyotes are extremely abundant and trapping is the best method of bringing their population back in control. Although the wolf is likely to get in a coyote trap they can be released unharmed. Iron County trapper Dan Absolon of Amasa caught and released four wolves unharmed. Trapper Shawn Bortolini also caught five wolves in his coyote traps in

East Iron County. All of the wolves were released unharmed by DNR officials.

DNR wildlife biologists have routinely used properly sized leg hold traps to capture wolves for collaring surveys. The proper leg hold trap holds the animal securely but does not harm its leg. In the case of water related trapping, which makes up most of the trapping in our area, traps are set to kill the animal quickly. Most trappers use conibear traps that quickly kill the beaver, mink, or muskrat. Some trappers use leg hold traps set on a drowning wire that drowns the animal quickly.

Trapping plays a valuable role in controlling abundant animal populations that can become a nuisance. Most Michiganders don’t think about trappers until a beaver inundates the access road to their family cabin or starts dropping shade trees in the front yard of their lake front cottage. Wisconsin DNR research indicates that one beaver dam per mile in our low gradient trout streams causes significant trout habitat degradation. The degradation is from warming of waters, blockage of trout movement for spawning, blockage from cold water refuge in the summer, and siltation of spawning gravel. Michigan DNR surveys in Dickinson and Iron Counties found an average of ten beaver dams per mile in the 1990’s. Effective beaver trapping is the only way to restore trout habitat and free flowing trout streams.

Anyone who has ever shot a deer and not found it that day only to find it completely consumed by coyotes when found the next day knows the frustration of over populated coyote populations. Trappers play a valuable role in controlling species that are over populated and causing problems. Good trappers gain valuable skills at taking care of their furs and not wasting the animal. On the central Mississippi River beaver are not worth very much as fur but are trapped and sold for human consumption. Although human consumption is not popular here, beaver carcasses are sometimes used for feeding sled dogs and captive carnivores.

Dedicated trappers use several methods to run their trap lines. Four wheel drive trucks are commonly used in Upper Michigan, but trapper Stanolis often uses a canoe, or just walks considerable distances with a trapping basket (backpack) to access the streams. Trapper Stanolis showed the young trappers the advantages of trapping back away from road crossings and thus avoiding complications such as theft and tampering. A few trappers only trap near roads although the trappers I spoke to prefer getting back in the bush away from the roads and avoiding some of the associated problems. Young trappers Grabowski and Mitchell only recently started to drive. Prior to that time they were limited to where their parents could drop them off or access by ATV. They often walk although they have also used kayaks.

In the UP the beaver season runs from October 25 to April 15 (April 30 on designated trout streams), although that period is misleading. Deep snow, unplowed roads and thick ice make only about the first three weeks of the season and the last three or four weeks as practical trapping season. Most beaver trapper work like farmers at harvest time during those two periods.

If you have any questions about trapping you should refer to the Michigan Hunting and Trapping Digest, or your local Michigan DNR Service Center.