The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Trappers catch nuisance critters
By RUSTY DENNEN
Jim Slater, owner of Slater Farm in King George County, noticed that deer and turkey had become scarce on his land adjoining Machodoc Creek.
Several of his sons who hunt there reported seeing and hearing coyotes, Slater said in an interview last week.
“I’m convinced the coyotes drove them off the property,” said Slater, 80, who grows peaches, apples and Christmas trees on 60 acres.
While he was considering what to do, Bill Coffee, a licensed trapper who lives in Spotsylvania County, stopped by the farm to ask Slater for permission to do some trapping.
As they got to talking, Coffee told Slater he also removes nuisance wildlife, including coyotes.
“I told him I’d put out some traps for [them] and see what we get,” Coffee said as he stopped by this week to check about 20 traps set around the property east of U.S. 301.
Though Slater’s farm sits in a relatively rural setting, wildlife and homeowners are increasingly at odds across the state, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The agency maintains a list of licensed trappers and others who remove unwanted critters for a fee. More than a dozen work in the Fredericksburg area.
“We get a lot of calls on nuisance wildlife,” said Sgt. Ryan Shuler, a conservation law enforcement officer with VDGIF’s Fredericksburg office.
Beavers, which gnaw trees and dam up streams, and garden-loving groundhogs generate a lot of the calls, he says.
“This spring, we had a higher-than-average number of calls about groundhogs in Stafford,” Shuler said. It’s not clear why.
WILD AND WORRISOME
His office averages about 10 nuisance wildlife calls a month. Game wardens don’t handle them, so homeowners can opt to deal with the problem themselves, turn to a professional removal service, or explore other non-lethal options, such as preventative measures.
“Beavers are my biggest complaint,” said Coffee, 58, who took up trapping in 2003 and founded Coffee’s Wildlife Removal in 2006. “They dam up streams and flood farmers’ fields or backyards.”
One woman called him after she saw beavers chewing down several ornamental cherry trees that had cost her $150 each.
“She asked, ‘You don’t have to kill them do you?’”
State regulations require that an animal be euthanized or immediately released where it was caught. For example, an an animal trapped in an attic can be released immediately outside on the same property.
Coffee, and most trappers, typically use a small-caliber pistol to kill a pest.; it’s quick and doesn’t damage the fur.
“That’s the law,” Coffee said. “If you took a beaver and released it on another part of a stream 10 miles away, he’d be trespassing on other beavers,” which he says are very territorial. Also, relocating wild animals increases the possibility of spreading disease.
Coffee began setting traps on Slater’s farm before Christmas, catching a few animals, but no coyotes—an invasive species native to the West. He also traps on other farms in the region.
Coffee caught a fox Thursday on Slater’s farm. The animal had mange and wasn’t worth skinning, he said. Riding in a red pickup truck loaded with gear, he stops at each “set” to check for animals and add bait or scent lure, if needed. With a reporter and photographer in tow, Coffee talked about his craft at each stop, occasionally punctuating his stories with a laugh and running his fingers through his long, white beard.
Coffee typically charges property owners $75 to $100 per animal, though there’s an additional set-up fee to trap beavers in water. The cost “really depends upon the season and the [type of] animal,” he said.
He uses uses foot-hold traps and box traps on land, and spring-loaded body-gripping traps in water for muskrats and beavers. All except the water traps must be checked daily.
Coffee first got interested in trapping as a boy in his native Florida. He set box traps to catch whatever he could catch. After high school, he spent six years in the Army, then got married for the first time and moved around the country. He worked in the gaming industry in Las Vegas, and in Florida as a plumber and at Cypress Gardens and Disney World. He moved to Virginia in 2000, where his current wife was from.
In 2003, Coffee wanted to get into trapping professionally. His first stop was the Virginia Trappers Association website.
“They had a convention in 2004 in Luray. I got hold of the president and we talked for a while. He gave me some pointers, and I got into regular trapping,” he said.
A trapper friend showed him the ropes on area farms. At one point, Coffee served as a regional director for the trappers association.
“You can’t just walk out into the woods and put out a trap and catch something,” he said. Trappers have to use knowledge about the animal’s ways, what it eats, travel routes and where it sleeps.
“Take a raccoon. He will eat mice, fish, frogs, turkey eggs, quail eggs. When all that’s gone during the cold season, it’s looking elsewhere for something to eat” or a place to stay—such as a nearby house, garage or shed.
Coffee says he selects traps depending upon the site.
“If it’s an area with kids around, I don’t use foot traps. ” Likewise, he wants to avoid catching a neighbor’s dog or cat.
Over the years, he’s caught a few dogs in traps, all of which he says were released with only a sore foot.
“The traps do hurt, but they don’t break any bones or draw blood.”
Coffee says he’s careful about that, because trappers have plenty of critics. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for example, condemns trapping as “cruel,” advocating nonlethal preventive measures to curb property and crop damage.
The Humane Society’s Wild Neighbors program is aimed at helping people and wildlife co-exist. It also has a publication, “Living with Wild Neighbors in Urban and Suburban Communities: A Guide for Local Leaders” to find long-term, nonlethal solutions.
A BALANCED APPROACH
Still, there’s conflict.
Coffee says he’s had traps damaged and stolen, which means money out of his pocket for lost equipment and pelts. It’s unlawful to disturb, or remove animals from, legally set traps.
Ed Clark, president and co-founder of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, says dealing with nuisance wild animals is complicated.
“This is not something the state can really monitor very well,” Clark said. Homeowners need to do their homework and hire someone they feel comfortable with.
As an experienced wildlife handler, “I can catch them myself, but if someone has a home and raccoons nesting in the attic, it can not only be unsettling, but very destructive.”
Clark says there needs to be a balanced approach, though killing is sometimes the only option. The center gets frequent calls about problem wildlife, and makes its own referrals to service providers, he said.
“The more-responsible people will work with a property owner to get an animal to leave a building on its own.”
Human–wildlife conflicts, he says, grow with each new subdivision or shopping center.
“Human population has encroached on every bit of habitat” in the Fredericksburg area, Clark said. But certain animals, such as deer, adapt. Suburban neighborhoods have become an ideal habitat for them.
“Dogs are fenced in, they have all the good azaleas for food. On the one hand, yes, you’ve destroyed forested habitat and open space, but created ideal habitat for squirrels, deer, rats and raccoons. Those things have to be attended to, and co-existed with.”
Clark has advocated that developers provide corridors of natural space where animals can move through safely.
“Do these wildlife [removal] operators provide a service? Very definitely; it’s a service that meets a need, and there is a spectrum of ways in which those problems can be resolved, including peaceful co-existence.”
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431