FORT BENTON, Mont. (AP) -- Mornings, autumn through winter, find Don Judkins tending his trap line.
One recent day, with new snow spread like ermine and the sun shining through a windless blue sky, Judkins took seven coyotes from 40 snares on Highwood Creek east of Great Falls.
It was enough to move even a 30-year veteran like Judkins.
''Didn't the Lord give us a fine day?'' he asks. ''Just imagine seeing all of these sunrises and people having to go to work, and I get to go out trapping.''
But it isn't all blue skies and new snow for Montana's 2,000-plus trappers: Prices are flat; trapping remains under attack as cruel; and new regulations have trappers grumbling.
Even the good news is gloomy. At last month's fashion shows in New York City, model after model wore fur. But most of it was ranch-raised or used as trim -- not enough to raise prices.
The coats also re-ignited the fur debate. Protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals crashed three fashion shows. They threw tofu pies, spilled red paint on a runway and held up ''Fur Shame'' signs.
Still, the number of people buying trapping licenses in Montana has increased gradually over the past 10 years.
There are 2,600 Montanans licensed to take furbearers this season, according to Brian Giddings of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. That is an increase of 35 percent since 1990.
Nationwide, there are an estimated 150,000 to 165,000 trappers, Steve Greene of the National Trappers Association said. But because trapping often involves families, he believes the NTA represents close to a million people.
''It's hard to count, because some states don't have separate hunting and trapping licenses,'' Greene said.
Back in the late 1970s and '80s, many more people were trapping because fur prices were, as Judkins said, ''through the ceiling.''
Prices now -- $30 for a coyote compared to $150 to $180 in the heyday 20 years ago -- are keeping all but the hardcore trapper out of the woods these days.
''Price-wise, it's pretty slim for a trapper to make any money,'' said Fran Buell, who edits the Montana Trapper Association newsletter from her home in Gildford. ''When prices go down, the weekend trapper doesn't trap. Right now we have the dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore longliners trapping, and they will trap no matter what.''
Trapping in Montana is older than the state itself. Europeans made forays into Montana before Lewis and Clark, but the great period of beaver trapping in the Rocky Mountains -- the mountain-man era -- began in about 1820, when beaver hats were highly fashionable. It lasted only a decade or two; fashion changed and beaver populations fizzled.
Now, most trappers do it because they love the out-of-doors, and for some, it supplements their income.
''When I'm on my trap line, it's like opening day at Christmastime,'' said Dave Vidrich of Butte, who has been trapping for about 16 years. ''It's a challenge all the time.''
This year Vidrich trapped a wolverine in the Highland Mountains south of Butte. It took more than a week and several trips into the mountains from the time a friend told him of seeing the tracks until he caught the elusive animal in a foothold trap.
Vidrich also was hired by the city of Butte to trap beaver along a walking trail in the city after the animals felled numerous trees and threatened to flood the trail.
Herman Hankins of Geraldine traps the Big Sag Ranch and the Highwood Mountains east of Great Falls. ''Herk,'' as he is called, concentrates mostly on predators. So far this year, he has taken 19 bobcats.
''I turned four of those lose because it was before Dec. 1 when the season opens,'' Hankins said. ''It's like gold mining. If it gets you, it really takes hold.''
Charlie Clement of Fairfield works for the Greenfield Irrigation Project. He also traps, and last year he took 65 beaver.
''Everybody thinks there is a ton of money in it. It's fun. I like the outdoors and I love to be around animals,'' Clement said. ''You don't get rich off of it.''
Jim Buell of Gildford, the Montana liaison with the National Trapper Association, thinks the health of trapping is good right now.
''As we trappers are doing a better job of informing the public of what we are doing and how we are doing it -- controlling excess population and nuisance animals -- the health of trapping is very good right now. We are not perceived as being cruel,'' he said.
Buell cited a four-year ''best management practice'' program under way to determine the most humane way to trap animals. It's being conducted by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the National Trapper Association and the Fur Takers of America.
''It's aimed at finding the most humane way to harvest furbearers,'' Buell said.
Not everyone agrees.
RaeLeann Smith, fur campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told a Los Angeles Times writer recently, ''Fur has always been frivolous. There is no reason to continue ripping skins off animals' back simply for vanity.''
Smith said the organization would continue to target fashion shows ''until there is no fur on the runways.''
Tressa Schutter of Columbia Falls, who traps with her husband, Paul, now preaches ethics to new trappers.
''Ethics has to do with the way you conduct yourself for your own good, the animal's good and the good of trapping,'' she tells young trappers.
''Trapping is more than a hobby,'' she says. ''It's not a commercial venture, it is a passion. It's a lifetime pattern, and we know in our hearts there is nothing wrong with it.''
Trappers say they are managing animal populations that left unchecked would destroy themselves.
Giddings, the state's furbearer manager and a wildlife biologist, says he fully supports trapping in Montana.
''It is a great tool for us to use,'' Giddings said. ''The recreational trapper can take care of a lot of problems that landowners have and we don't have to respond to. Fur is a renewable resource that we can take advantage of.''
People take a dim view of trapping until they experience the damage that animals can do, game warden Steve Vinnedge said.
''Every time somebody buys 10 acres of cottonwood on a river bottom, they will be calling us before the ink is dry, asking us to do something about the beavers,'' he said.
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