When I recognized the coyote trap for what it was, I was a little taken aback. A perfect circle of wire looped over some sagebrush, ready to catch and choke whatever poked its head through. I called my dog back and we slowly exited the area.
For a second, I was angry at whoever laid out the snare trap. How dare they put a trap along a well-used game trail? Then my anger turned to humor. In the middle of one of the most unpopulated counties in the country, Owyhee County, someone had laid a trap and was continuing a tradition that pushed European settlement of the United States. I felt silly for being angry.
But my anger, as short lived as it was, is not an uncommon reaction. Trapping is a controversial issue despite its long history in the United States. So controversial, it has led to arson, constitutional amendments and deep misunderstandings by the public at large.
Certain types of traps have been banned in some states. Steel-jawed traps are banned in Colorado, Florida, California and Rhode Island. Snare traps, like the one I found in the desert, are also restricted in many areas.
But Idaho now has a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to trap, courtesy of HJR2, which was approved by Idaho voters Nov. 6. The amendment--which bundled the guaranteed right to hunt, fish and trap under the same umbrella--passed by an overwhelming majority of more than 70 percent.
But not everyone wanted the amendment to include the right to trap, among them Boise Democrat Rep. Phyllis King.
"In this day and age, trapping is just cruel," she said. "Trappers have to check on their traps every 72 hours, so an animal can be in pain for a long time before the trapper comes back along. That is, if they are even obeying the laws."
Last year, Idaho sold 1,752 trapping licenses to both juniors and adults, as well as 28 nonresident trapping licenses, according to Craig Wiedmeier at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. These licenses are relatively inexpensive: $7.25 for a junior, $26.75 for a resident adult and $301.75 for a nonresident. Unlike hunting and fishing licenses, a trapping license has to be applied for in Idaho.
Most of these licenses, according to Dennis Heck, owner of Rocky Mountain Fireworks and Fur in Caldwell, are for part-time trappers.
"They do it for the enjoyment and tradition more than the money" said Heck.
When it comes to money, the values of pelts vary. According to Heck's rough pricing guide, a coyote hide can fetch $50-$60, depending on the quality and damage to the fur. On the other end of the spectrum is a bobcat hide, which can garner as much as $700.
Just doing the math, it takes 192 coyotes to hit the federal poverty level of $11,484 per year for a single person. And that is before expenses like gas, traps and property leases. Numerous calls to the Idaho Trappers Association went unreturned by press time.
The fur trade has even become a national security concern. In 2011, Heck and his business were targeted by a California-based group called Animal Liberation Front. The group claimed responsibility for a fire at Heck's business, which caused $100,000 in damages.
The Arson Unit of the ALF was quoted as saying, "By oppressing innocent life, you've lost your rights. We've come to take you down a notch. Stay in business and we'll be back."
Idaho mirrors the history of the United States when it comes to trapping. Trappers played an important role in discovery and settlement of the country. Each time a trapper moved into a new area and safely returned to civilization, others followed his lead, pushing further and further into the wilderness. Only the discovery of gold had as big of an effect on westward settlement as the fur trade.
Popular concepts of the modern trapper come more from pop culture and the laughable lines and accents in television shows like History Channel's Swamp People than reality. Shows depicting roughnecks trapping for a living give cable TV audiences a voyeuristic view of what the trappers life is like.
The American tradition of trapping has never really been for Americans. The market for our fur has always been abroad. The first American fur market was for the Europeans, where fur, beaver-skin hats and the like were fashionable. Now China dominates fur markets and prices.
"The U.S. just does not get cold enough for fur to be a real option," Heck said.
Weather is not the only reason that American fur is not used in America.
"Social pressures from those PETA-type folks make fur undesirable for many to wear," said Heck. "I would say that only 15-20 percent of our fur stays in the domestic market."
Despite the social stigma, Heck remains in the fur business, but the pressure on trapping continues. Heck was happy when HJR2 passed.
"It confirms our right to exist, for now and into the future," he said.