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A Fur Trapper Reflects on His Sport

Marideth Sisco interviews Kenny Wells about fur trapping in the Ozarks.

Sisco: This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. You know, as I get older, I'm afraid I'm getting a little bit opinionated. We can get comfortable in our beliefs if we're not challenged, especially on things far removed from our daily lives. I once heard a talk by an expert, meaning he was from out of town, who said that farmers should get away from their tractors and get back to the mattock and hoe. I figure about 10 minutes with a mattock in our rocky soil would change his mind. Then I found out he wrote that book on his computer in his New York City apartment. I guess it's ok to live in your own world. When it gets troublesome is when we try to make everybody live just like us. This week, I visited with a man whose profession is nearly as old as the world itself. Some people think he should give it up. He says we've already changed the world too much to pretend we're not a part of the ecosystem. In the wild, the human is the last surviving large predator as well as the one charged with stewardship. Kenny Wells of Salem was recently inducted into the Missouri Fur Trappers Hall of Fame. I'll let him tell the story himself.

Wells: We harvest a renewable natural resource just like if you were logging or anything else. We sometimes are misunderstood but there's a very definite need: more animals than the land can sustain. They die of disease, starvation. That's a whole lot more cruel than harvesting them. There has to be a balance. That's where we as trappers are probably more conservation-minded than any other group of individuals because a trapper has to figure out the animal's habits, what they want to eat. We trap from November the 15th to January the 20th but we have to trap 365 days a year. Not set the trap but have to be in tune with nature. I'm 59 and I started when I was about 10 years old. Trapped on my grandpa's farm, was interested in trapping as a child. And I just kept working at it, had the old timers show me things, kind of a self-taught trapper. Love nature, love the outdoors. I'm a farmer also, me and my wife. She helps me trap. We've enjoyed the sport of trapping ever since we've been married. Both born and raised right here around Salem. I think a lot of people don't understand it. I think that they think, "Well, you just harvest the fur because you get money out of it." That's the least part of it. We trap raccoon, otter, beaver, muskrat, mink, coyote, fox, bobcat. There's a few badger but not very many. In 1982, the National Park Service, through a change in regulation decided we could no longer trap on the Ozark National Scenic River Way. And at that time, we had to take them to court and won our right to trap. I think it was pretty important because the people who set this Ozark National Scenic River Ways up as a national recreation area. It's not a national park. But this is what happens. We get people far removed from the outdoors and they're in positions of authority and then that creates problems because they don't really realize what the impact to people's lifestyle they're making when they make these regulations. That's important for them to understand us. Not everybody's a trapper. There's people that don't like to trap. I realize that. That's fine but I don't know that they should tell me that I can't. People want to go back like it was before any human activity was ever in the wilderness. We have to have a very delicate balance. We need to understand wildlife. Once you put your thumb on the scale of nature. It never returns.

Sisco: Food for thought. Thank you Kenny. This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills.

Marideth is a Missouri storyteller, veteran journalist, teacher, author, musician and student of folklore focusing on stories relevant to Ozarks culture and history. Each month, she’s the voice behind "These Ozarks Hills.” Sisco spent 20 years as an investigative and environmental writer for the West Plains Quill and was well known for her gardening column, “Crosspatch,” on which her new book is based. Sisco was a music consultant and featured singer in the 2010 award-winning feature film “Winter's Bone.”