If there were a doctoral degree for the art of animal damage control, Dave Wallace would hold one.
The Kila area trapper knows all critters well, and Wallace Wildlife Services is in high demand, to say the least. He works for private landowners, local governments, resorts, golf courses, and federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to handle pest problems off all kinds.
“I’ve been a constant observer of animals for 50 years, and what I know is for sale, and that’s all there is to it,” Wallace said after trapping two muskrats that had been causing damage to terrain around a local golf course pond.
The previous day, he trapped four skunks on contract in the Kalispell area, ground squirrels in the Whitefish area, and two beavers that had been causing big problems on Idaho Creek near Marion.
The beavers had plugged up culverts and diverted streamflows, causing the creek to swamp out a private road. The landowner had two or three other people try to remove the beavers, but they failed. Wallace was called in and he pulled off the job in one day. Wearing chest waders, he worked his way through thick willows and brush, pulling his canoe with equipment aboard behind him.
“It’s like anything else in the world — you either know what you’re doing or you don’t,” said Wallace, who has been hired as a consultant and speaker for a specialty that is now taught in some four-year degree programs. He recalls providing private instruction to a trapper from Delaware who now earns six figures doing animal damage control in densely populated urban areas.
He marvels that when he started his business about 20 years ago, he was basically a pioneer in the business. Now he operates on reputation alone, with only a handful of competitors in western Montana.
“Even though I have a couple competitors now, they haven’t diminished my road time at all,” he said.
Wallace, 65, grew up and went to college in New York, subsidizing his education by trapping and selling furs.
“When I was in college, mink was the shining jewel,” said Wallace, who recalls selling mink pelts for $30 apiece.
After earning a forestry degree, he went on to serve as an Army Airborne soldier in the 1960s. He came to Montana in the late 1970s and went to work in logging and wood products, but eventually lost his job as that industry declined.
“I couldn’t find work around here,” he said. “I couldn’t buy a job, so I made one for myself.”
Since then he’s managed to trap, well, you name it — mountain lions, badgers, skunks, bobcats, marten, fisher, bears, raccoons and even snakes, bats and pigeons.
“I get calls on just about everything under the sun,” he said.
But ground squirrels, muskrats and beavers top the list for pest control, and Wallace has developed many tricks of the trade in trapping them. He brews his own scent lures, including a particularly effective one based on beaver castor oil.
Sometimes, he uses repellent scents. He recalls one case where he got a mother raccoon and her new litter to vacate a home fireplace she had occupied through the chimney.
The predator scent, he said, “basically poses a threat and forced them to leave.”
Wallace is well aware of an anti-trapping sentiment among the public, but he is proudly defiant, saying he pays taxes, served his country, and has a right to legal trapping, which he considers part of the state’s heritage.
“There’s a lot of people who truly hate trapping,” he said. “I’ve been fighting it for 50 years, but it seems to be accelerating or getting worse.”
He’s served as a trapper education instructor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks since that program’s inception, and will be teaching a course at the Flathead Valley Trap Club on June 18.
He says the course focuses on ethics rather than methods of trapping. Those ethics stress diligence in checking trap lines, knowing state trapping statutes in detail and taking measures to avoid conflicts with people and domestic animals.
“We don’t need to be catching people’s dogs and cats,” he said.
Wallace stresses that trapping requires extreme dedication, regardless of whether it requires going into deep snow and freezing cold.
“Once you’ve got traps out, you’ve got a commitment to go out and check those traps,” he said. “Then when you’re under contract, you’re really committed.”
Wallace says he shuns hunting because it interferes with his trapping. But these days, he does his recreational trapping on the expanses of the high desert in southeastern Oregon, where he has unfettered vehicle access.
“It still requires a lot of walking,” he said, but vehicles are necessary to run trap lines that can stretch for many miles.
He laments that a lot of forest roads he used to use for his trap lines in Northwest Montana are now gated.
Wallace is eager to bring along a new generation of trappers, and maybe even one to assume the mantle of his business.
“The only thing is right now, I can’t find the right young blood as my successor,” he said.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.