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RBC I The era of fur trapping and earning a bounty for predation animals has long since passed. However, trapping was an integral part of the history of our Rio Blanco County area as well as the entire western United States.
Early trading with Native Americans was a substantial part of American history and as one historian suggests, “The opening of trading posts along the Missouri River, at the junction of the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers, changed the economic dynamic of the Plains Indians.” (www.thefurtrapper.com /fur_trappers.htm)
Native Americans began trapping out of necessity, using snares, nets, clubs and even deadfalls. It was not until the early 1800s that iron traps were really introduced and adopted as the main method of trapping.
Beaver pelts were primarily traded for guns and ammunition in the early days, before becoming profitable for the “mountain man” of the early West. Trapping was actually illegal in the beginning of the fur trade brigades, spanning from 1807 to 1840, but the laws were very difficult to enforce.
From 1818 to 1821, trapping brigades were sent to the Snake River and so trapping came to our area. Trapping became such a lucrative business companies such as the Northwest Company no longer relied solely on trading with Native Americans, they employed many Americans to trap for them.
The “Newhouse” iron traps were developed and, soon, larger traps were available for everything from beavers to larger animals such as bear.
Homesteaders, and later people simply wanting to add to their income, ran personal trap lines on their property. Money was offered for pelts as late as 1950.
This led to hunting of one of the most infamous and controversial predators of the United States and our northwest corner of Colorado — wolves. Wolves were considered a threat to trap lines, livestock and even humans, and were hunted and killed to protect the rural economy and human life.
One great story dating back to 1918 in our area is that of local George Wear shooting a wolf in his “long-handle” underwear. He and his wife, Bessie, had a daughter name Elinor who was born on March 20, 1918, on the Peterson Place at Three Springs.
“Wolves were howling around the cabin that night. They were 70 miles from a hospital, so Mrs. Si Bailey came and helped Bessie with the birth. George went out in knee-deep snow in his long-handle underwear shooting wolves.”
The fact is, at the time, wolves were a threat. Perhaps equally as important, there was a bounty of up to $150 offered for a wolf pelt.
Imagine the difference that kind of money could make in that time. The times and land were tough, and the threat of a predator as well as prospect of income was certainly more important then concern for the animal.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the number of wolves killed annually peaked at approximately 21,000. This triggered conservation efforts and ideology, and later efforts to reintroduce the wolf in areas where the animal had been eradicated.
The wolf is an animal that engenders strong emotions for people from Canada south into the U.S. Wolves are known worldwide for the destructive capacity. Even today, the numbers of elk in Yellowstone Park alone vary drastically in accordance with the wolf numbers.
Hunting and trapping either wolves or beavers for trade or survival has been a key part of our history for many years.
Today’s ideas about trapping and hunting tend to be very different than our ancestors, if our family’s well-being and safety were on the line, our perspective might change.