Joe Edminster leans over the fleshy side of a 3-foot-long beaver skin in his garage north of Grand Rapids. The 66-year-old power company retiree uses a long and very sharp knife to trim away a thin layer of meat and fat from the fur pelt.
"See how nice that comes off?" Edminster said. "Just shaves off perfect."
Edminster figures he's processed around 10,000 beaver in his lifetime. Tabletops in his work area hold piles of pelts, including muskrat, a couple of bobcats, a coyote, gray and red fox, and beaver. There are 160 more beaver skins sitting in a chest freezer waiting to be processed.
Edminster isn't alone; nearly 10,000 people in Minnesota bought trapping licenses this season, more than any time in the past 25 years.
Fur prices are up this year, so that makes it a boom time for trappers. Next week, furs worth millions of dollars will be sold at an international auction house in Toronto. But trapping, a way of life for people like Edminster, isn't without controversy.
In Edminster's garage, hundreds of metal traps of all sizes are piled neatly against the far wall. It's that kind of equipment that makes some people charge that trapping is a cruel and inhumane way for wild animals to die.
Trapping is a business, Edminster said.
"You can make good money. Last year I made about $20,000 trapping. I think I sold 354 beaver on one sale and 178 on another sale," he said. "We had our martin, fisher, a bunch of coon, some muskrats. We had a bunch of otter between me and the wife."
Edminster's wife Barb is a full partner in their business; they've been married more than 40 years. Their rural home is decorated with furs and traps hanging on the walls. Their basement is like a museum, with more than 600 traps on display. Some are antiques dating back to the late 1700s.
Barb Edminster said she's learned to love trapping. The two joke that she's come a long way from when they first met.
"When we started dating, we'd go to the dump and shoot rats," she said. "I got to learn how to handle a pistol, because I didn't grow up with any of that stuff."
Barb Edminster said now, all their children and grandchildren are trappers, too.
"Just like when you're sitting in a deer stand and a big buck walks by, it's exciting," she said. "Every time you stop at a trap, you get that same [feeling], and if I didn't like it, if I didn't get excited, I wouldn't go. I just enjoy it."
RISING PRICES = RISING POPULARITY
The rise in fur prices is the biggest cause of trapping's rise in popularity in Minnesota. Pelts from muskrats — the state's most commonly trapped fur bearer — used to sell for $3 to $5 apiece. But in the past few years the price has tripled.
Last season trappers killed more than 350,000 muskrats, nearly double the usual annual harvest.
After he trims the beaver pelt, Joe Edminster stretches it out on a large board and uses nails to hold it in place so the fur pelt can dry.
Joe Edminster's cousin Sam Grossman, a hobby trapper from the Grand Rapids area, helps him out. This season Grossman trapped 42 beaver, and he'll eventually get paid close to $1,600 for the pelts.
Resourceful trappers can earn extra money by selling the beavers' scent glands, which are used in the perfume industry. The tails are sometimes sold in Winnipeg, where they're made into boots and other leather products.
Grossman said he even eats beaver if it's fresh enough from the trap.
"I barbecued some on the grill, and we made jerky. It's pretty good," Grossman said. "You'd think it would be chewy, but it ain't. It's real tender."
Joe Edminster keeps close tabs on the fur industry. He's a broker for the Toronto-based North American Fur Auctions, the largest fur seller on the continent and the third-largest fur auction house in the world.
In mid-January each year, Joe Edminster travels around Minnesota picking up animal pelts from hundreds of trappers. The hides are sent to auction in Toronto, and the company sends those trappers a check when the sale is complete.
Last year Joe Edminster alone brokered close to $3 million in fur sales. In total, the DNR figures fur sales from Minnesota brought in nearly $5 million.
Joe Edminster said most pelts from Minnesota are shipped overseas.
"Greece does a lot of it. They make a lot of the coats and sell them to the Russians or wherever," he said. "China right now is probably the biggest driver in the fur industry. ... They're not all rich, but there's a lot of rich Chinese and they all want to wear fur."
TRAPPING STILL TARGETED
In the 1970s and 1980s, anti-fur campaigns suppressed demand for fur in this country. Animal rights groups continue to protest regularly against fur trapping. They say the practice is a form of animal cruelty, and worry that some species could be hurt by over-trapping.
There's recently been more controversy around trapping in Minnesota. Dog owners complain their pets or hunting dogs have been caught and killed in a type of trap called a body gripper. The number of reported cases increased last year, when light snow cover meant more traps were exposed to areas where dogs were running.
Last year the Legislature tightened regulations on body gripping traps, which now have to be enclosed. Dog advocates are back at the Capitol this session asking lawmakers to tighten the rules even more, by requiring the traps be elevated at least 4 feet off the ground. Some trapping groups oppose the measure.
Joe Edminster occasionally gets questioned by people who are against trapping. Even his granddaughter used to give him a hard time about it.
"She came to me one day, she was only like seven or eight years old, and she goes 'Pa, why do you kill all them animals,' " he said. "I go 'whoa, this is a tough one when your granddaughter starts asking you questions like that.' "
Edminster's explanation is simple. He said without management, animal species like muskrat and beaver would overpopulate and die of disease. Beavers would become a nuisance on the landscape, cutting down trees and building dams that would flood roads and forestland.
Edminster's philosophy is that animals are a resource that should be managed with tools like trapping.
"Do you have leather boots on? Do you have a leather belt on? Everybody wears leather, but they don't realize it's just fur without hair on it," he said. "It's pretty humane in reality. I mean, death in the wild is not something you look forward to anyway, because most animals are eaten by some other animal."
DNR: TRAPPING WELL REGULATED
DNR officials say the number of trappers in the state jumped 20 percent over last year, and it's the highest it's been since the 1988-1989 season.
Jason Abraham, a fur bearer specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources, said trapping has become more mainstream, especially in rural areas. Young people born after 1989 are required to take a certification class that includes ethics training.
"It's a highly regulated activity," Abraham said. "We have 130-some conservation officers throughout the state that enforce regulations that are based on the best science that we have available."
There's no trapping limit for some species, like muskrat, beaver and raccoons. Other species, including fisher, martin, otter and bobcat, are more regulated. Trappers can take only a limited number, and they have to register those animals with the DNR.
Abraham said he's confident that fur bearing species are well managed.
"We only trap for wildlife that is in good numbers," he said. "There's a lot of benefits to trapping out there."
Trappers are required to purchase both a small game and a trapping license. License sales this season generated close to $400,000 in state revenue. The money is used for wildlife management and enforcement.
While the trapping season has ended for most species, spring is a busy time for Joe and Barb Edminster. In April, they'll go after beaver until the season ends in May. They typically trap 200 to 300 beaver each spring.