Colorado Springs – The face of a skinned coyote stares from the hood of the fur cape. Its body and legs hang over trapper Claude Oleyar’s shoulders and down his back.
“The black-powder, muzzle-loader people love these,” Oleyar said, adjusting the $125 novelty. “Dressing up like old mountain men.”
The coyote cape hangs among the assorted skins collected by a 61-year-old wildlife biologist who has spent most of his life trapping animals.
Everything he catches these days is somebody’s nuisance: pet-eating coyotes, attic squirrels, backyard raccoons, foxes and skunks, ringtailed cats prowling the bowels of the luxurious Broadmoor hotel.
But Oleyar and fellow trappers hope to be skinning some other animals soon.
Ten years after voters put a partial trapping ban into the state constitution, the practi tioners of Colorado’s oldest trade are calling for a new season on mink, swift fox and other mammals with valued pelts.
Their petition to the Colorado Wildlife Commission has reignited a debate between those content to admire wildlife through binoculars and those who see it as something to wear or eat.
“The trappers never accepted the outcome of the ballot initiative,” said Colorado Wildlife Alliance president Dave Jones.
“They’ve been whittling away at it, and now they’re going to see if they can kick the door open,” Jones said.
The Colorado Trappers Association was born 31 years ago at a Park County campground.
A small band of men decided Colorado should have a trappers’ group and called an organizing rendezvous in Fairplay.
To their surprise, they awoke in the morning to find a valley filled with 200 campers.
In 1995, the wildlife commission shut down recreational harvests of the animals the trappers now want to hunt.
A year later, 52 percent of Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment banning the taking of wildlife with leghold traps, lethal body-gripping traps, snares or poisons.
The amendment had exemptions for livestock and crop protection, human health and safety, scientific research and animal relocations.
It did not mention box traps – baited cages – which are now widely used.
Colorado trapping survived on those exceptions.
The 350 association members sell much of what they still trap at the National Western Stock Show in Denver and at a yearly auction.
This year’s auction brought in $104,664 from 18 species of fur, plus some antlers, skulls and horns.
Coyote pelts, 1,530 of them, led the sales. Auction prices ranged from 25 cents for a muskrat pelt to $550 for a bobcat skin.
Oleyar, who began animal trapping as a kid in suburban Virginia, says the state wildlife commission wrongly halted recreational trapping.
Mink, marten, foxes and weasels “are flourishing,” he said. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t trap some of them.”
Oleyar said a trapper’s killing method is no crueler than hunting elk with a rifle.
“I believe in utilizing wildlife. I like to hunt and eat what I hunt,” Oleyar said.
“Beaver is excellent. Bobcat and mountain lion are excellent. Muskrat is superb,” he said. “Coyotes are really rank.”
The renewed battle over trapping began in February with a one-page, handwritten request from the Colorado Trappers Association to the wildlife commission to add to the trapping list: weasels, martens, mink, gray foxes, opossums and spotted skunks.
The proposal also suggested trapping could help provide population data on the species.
“Since we’re the trappers’ association, everyone’s going ballistic,” said Marvin Miller, who made the request.
Sinapu, a Boulder-based wildlife advocacy group, says the proposed trapping would violate the state constitution and the research rationale is suspicious.
“We have concerns about the well-being of these populations,” said Wendy Keefover- Ring, Sinapu’s carnivore protection director.
“Then there’s the ethical issue: whether we should allow these animals to be trapped and harvested for their fur,” she said.
The Colorado Wildlife Commission, a governor-appointed body, is expected to vote on the trapping petition in July.
At the commission’s request, the Colorado Division of Wildlife drafted regulations for trapping three of the requested animals.
The division staff, however, recommended that there be no expansion of trapping.
“This is clearly ripe for debate,” division spokesman Tim Holeman said.
Animal skins were Colorado’s first big product and – before gold miners, ranchers and homesteaders – the reason the first traders came to the territory.
Mountain men Jim Bridger, Louis Vasquez and Jedediah Smith ranged the untamed Rockies, searching for beaver dams in the early 1800s.
Using jawed traps, they hunted beaver whose skins fetched $6 to $8 each in New York.
By 1830, mountain streams had been depleted of beaver, silk hats were in fashion, and the fur trade was in decline.
While fur trading never stopped, prices fell so low in the 1940s that El Paso County red fox growers simply turned animals loose on the Front Range.
Today, Oleyar sees signs of a price recovery bolstered by demands for fur coats and collars from Asian countries.
Oleyar saw the average price for a coyote skin rebound 50 percent in a year to $27. The demand for bobcats, he said, is phenomenal.
Its soft, spotted-gold fur makes “an awesome” and expensive coat, Oleyar said. “You need at least a dozen for a jacket.”
The tools of a lifetime of trapping dominate the backyard of his Colorado Springs home.
Under the deck, he keeps hundreds of leghold traps, body traps and snares. Along the fence, he stores box traps designed for everything from skunk to coyote.
Oleyar salvages fur mainly in the winter, when animal coats look their best.
This past winter, he caught 60 coyotes, mostly in foothold traps or by shooting them when they responded to animal calls.
As a professional trapper, he learned to mimic the screech of a wounded cottontail and the bark of a coyote and to snare a skunk in an opaque box without getting sprayed.
“I have come home smelling skunky a few times,” Oleyar said.
A skilled trapper, Oleyar says he studies the habits and habitats of his prey and knows the art of patience.
Once a bobcat padded through the snow right past two traps only to be snared by the third, Oleyar said.
Hiding in tumbleweeds, he called a coyote close enough to touch.
“I could see the veins in his eyes,” he said.
Oleyar runs a home “animal damage control” business that gets $100 for an urban coyote and $50 for a skunk. He gets to keep the skins.
“It’s a very challenging, adventurous thing to catch a coyote,” Oleyar said. “I love that.”
He also believes resources should not be wasted, and so he takes the time to skin, flesh and dry a skunk pelt that might sell for $5 to $10.
He picked up pelts of coyote and skunk, running his hands through their soft, thick fur.
“To me, fur is romantic,” he said. “I love handling the stuff.”
Librarian Barbara Hudson contributed to this report.
Staff writer David Olinger can be reached at 303-820-1498 or email@example.com.