Blackwater refuge a trapper's domain

Ted Abbott pays a fee to spend winter catching muskrats to help save sanctuary

February 24, 2007|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,sun reporter

BLACKWATER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE -- This splendid stretch of mucky marshland along the Blackwater River is Ted Abbott's winter domain, a remote sanctuary that never fails to deliver a dose of frigid solitude that is his idea of a vacation.

Abbott, a muskrat trapper for most of his 67 years, revels in the stillness he shares with his prey - an unseen army of furry nocturnal rodents that paw through a maze of flooded tunnels, pausing to raise their heads to breathe amid Blackwater's brackish rivulets.

"There's no place on Earth I know about that's any prettier than this," says Abbott, spreading his arms to try to describe the 27,000-acre expanse about three miles from where he grew up in Dorchester County. "I've been into it my whole life, since I was 10 when my dad took me trapping."

Abbott and other trappers play a critical role in maintaining the balance that allows Blackwater to be what it is. Every winter, the federal government lets them into the refuge to capture animals that, left unchecked, would destroy the grassy marshes that are habitat for the geese and other migratory waterfowl that take respite here. Abbott has paid the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service $680 for the right to set his muskrat traps within a two-mile-long parcel.

This year, nearly a month of temperatures in the teens and powerful winter winds have kept self-respecting muskrats hunkered down inside hutches they fashion on the marsh from mud and thatch. Abbott says this has been one of the worst for trapping since he learned the trade.

"The wind's blowed out of the northwest all month, and that keeps the tide from even coming up in here," he says. "If he can't get under water, that rat is not going anywhere. If he's staying at home, he won't find one of my traps."

Abbott refers to all muskrats, dead or alive, with a generic "he."

The silver lining is that a frozen marsh makes for much easier walking. Abbott limps between traps, which are marked by sticks with plastic ribbons and have to be checked daily, on a bum knee that is due for a man-made replacement in April.

The animals dig tunnels through the mud, leaving a tell-tale hole when they break through the surface to breathe. Abbott easily spies these muskrat "leads" that mark the spots where traps should be set.

Sixteen-year-old T.J. Abbott ("Ted Jr., of course") is checking traps now. The teenager runs almost on tiptoe in thigh-high rubber boots, collecting a dozen muskrats and resetting the traps in less than an hour.

Protected from the cold by thick, shoulder-length rubber gloves, father and son gingerly pull traps from the tunnels, collect the dead muskrats and reset the traps for the next unfortunate aquatic fur-bearers.

Occasionally, a muskrat will spring a trap without being caught. Most drown after a steel bar slams across their necks or bodies.

Overhead, a dozen or so bald eagles leisurely circle the trappers, hoping they might leave one of the morsels where they can pounce. "We call them `white-headed buzzards,'" Abbott says, tossing an undersize rat onto the top of a nearby hutch, in clear sight of the elegant scavengers.

Even on a slow day during the season, early January to mid-March, Abbott collects a few dozen muskrats.

At home, in a shed he calls the "fur house," he skins the muskrats, then stretches the hides on metal drying frames, making them ready for sale to buyers from New Jersey and New York. In years past, many trappers would leave Blackwater with nutria as well, but wildlife officials have pretty much managed to eradicate the pesky South American rodent from the refuge.

Abbott also traps on a friend's land near his home, outside Church Creek.

Robert Colona, a biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, says there are no limits on trapping muskrats in Maryland. The state decided, however, it would be good to get a count of the number of animals and trappers, so it is now requiring a trapping permit.

"Until this year, the state never required anything but a hunting license to trap," Colona says. "This year, we required an extra $5 permit. The idea, whether it's the state or at the Blackwater refuge, is to manage the wildlife."

Nowadays, Abbott gets about $4 to $5 per rat for the fur, plus another $3 for the meat he sells to a few restaurants and local grocery stores. He removes the musk glands that are used to make perfume, collecting $125 per quart of the fluid. The money supplements his income from a home improvement business.

Once a cold-weather mainstay for Eastern Shore watermen, farmers and others, trapping has dwindled in recent years as fur prices have dropped amid protests from animal rights activists and wavering interest among clothing designers.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is Abbott's unobtrusive landlord at Blackwater. The agency collects sealed bids for each season's trapping rights, then mostly stays clear.

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