- Associated Press - Sunday, October 9, 2011

COOLBAUGH, Pa. — Barry Warner has loved wildlife since boyhood, and he lived out his dream of becoming a conservation officer. He sees no contradiction in the fact that he’s also a lifelong trapper, skilled at capturing wild animals and, if appropriate, killing them as part of an avocation that many Americans view as barbarous.

Here in the township of Coolbaugh, on the edge of a vast track of state game land in northeast Pennsylvania, he’s in his element. He demonstrates an array of traps unloaded from the back of his truck, reviews his 37-year career with the state game commission, from which he resigned as regional director in 2007, and recounts his periodic forays to North Carolina to trap bobcats, beaver and buck-toothed, wetland-dwelling nutria.

“Some people think trappers don’t care about wildlife,” Mr. Warner says. “It was my love for it that took me into this career. I don’t want to see anything suffer.”

In the next few months, tens of thousands of trappers nationwide will fan out through the backcountry. But of all the entrenched outdoor pursuits in America, it’s hard to think of any more polarizing than the one that unfolds every trapping season.

For proponents, the season is a treasured tradition evoking America’s frontier heritage. Trappers consider their quarry a renewable resource and depict themselves as front-line conservationists playing a vital role in wildlife management.

Opponents of trapping see a different picture — pervasive cruelty inflicted on millions of animals each year, largely to help supply domestic and overseas markets for fur.

“Commercial fur trapping dates back to the early 1600s and has hardly changed,” says Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA. He calls trapping “horrific, highly unregulated, inhumane and dangerous.”

Born Free and other animal-advocacy groups have been campaigning for decades to ban certain types of traps. Earlier this year, Born Free conducted an undercover investigation of trapping in Pennsylvania and cited its accusations of cruel and abusive practices to petition the game commission for tougher regulations. The petition was unanimously rejected last week.

Foes of trapping have scored victories in a few other states, and have caused many trappers to feel under siege, but overall there’s been strong support for trapping in Congress and state legislatures. In at least five states — Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Arkansas — the right to trap has been explicitly enshrined in the state constitution.

“Wildlife management should be left in hands of professionals,” says Dave Linkhart, a farmer and trapper from Xenia, Ohio, who is a spokesman for the National Trappers Association.

“Where we’ve lost some ground,” Mr. Linkhart adds, “it’s in parts of the country where trappers are scarce or not well-organized, and an uninformed or misinformed public gets on the animal-rights bandwagon.”

There are about 150,000 trappers in the U.S., according to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Most make little profit — perhaps a few hundred dollars per season — selling pelts at prices that range from close to $600 for a bobcat to roughly $15 for a beaver.

“The average guy is doing it because he loves it,” Mr. Warner says. “If he’s lucky, he pays his expenses.”