LUVERNE — While most people — and the sun — are still sleeping, one southwest Minnesotan arises before dawn every morning to travel a 20- to 30-mile route through Rock County, checking on traps he has set for nuisance and overpopulated animals.

Matt Buntjer first became interested in trapping in high school, through a friend of his dad's, and has gotten more serious about the sport over the last eight to 10 years.

"I always loved being outside," he said.

A lifelong hunter and fisherman, Buntjer was drawn to trapping because of the mental challenge.

"Trapping is like a puzzle," explained his wife, Kaitlin.

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Buntjer agreed. When he hunts, he just has to find the general area of the animal he's searching for, and sometimes he has a dog to help him locate game. Trapping is a lot more difficult.

"An animal can go anywhere it wants to, and I have to get it to step on a two-inch circle," he said.

To be successful at trapping, Buntjer has to know the animals really well, by reading extensively about them and studying their patterns. After a while, it becomes almost second nature to observe and trace critters' paths.

"One of the things I love about trapping is that you're there every single day, so you see so much more wildlife," Buntjer said. "You see a lot of things most people don't get to see."

For example, he knows that at certain times of day, he'll see a group of deer in a given spot while he follows his trapping route. It's not uncommon for him to pause on his way and say a prayer of thanks that he gets to see God's glory and creation up close.

As a busy husband, father of four and employee with the city of Luverne, Buntjer relishes the quiet time that trapping gives him. However, he also loves that trapping has become a family activity. On the weekends, Kaitlin and the kids like to join him in checking traps, bringing back whatever they've caught and making adjustments to the route.

While the youngest Buntjer, Jonny, is too little to appreciate trapping yet, the older three have embraced the sport, especially the boys, Brody (10) and Danny (5). In fact, this season, Brody and Danny ran their own raccoon trap line.

Prior to trapping seasons opening, Buntjer makes it a habit to visit several local landowners and ask their permission to trap on their land. He also is hired by area farmers to trap nuisance animals — usually beaver — who are tearing up their pasture.

Requests from farmers actually start rolling in around harvest time, before the trapping season. If they can prove the animals are causing a problem, then Buntjer can get a damage permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which allows him to dispose of the animals. He can't keep or sell any part.

Over the course of his time as a trapper, Buntjer has caught almost every animal that is legal to trap in Minnesota, with the exception of bobcat, marten and fisher, which aren't found in this part of the state. He is able to make this claim just as of this year, when he caught his first otter.

The otter was actually an accident, which does happen sometimes in trapping, Buntjer explained.

In Minnesota, he needs only to apply for a general trappers' license each year, with optional tags for otter, bobcat, fisher and marten. Since he wasn't planning to trap otter, Buntjer didn't request any additional tags with his license. So, after he caught one, he called a local DNR conservation officer and asked what to do. The officer allowed him to procure a tag retroactively, and he was permitted to use the parts of the otter.

Sometimes, a trapper will accidentally catch an animal out of its season. How to handle that situation largely depends on what kind of trap was used. If the trapper is able to release the animal, then they have to do so. If the trap already dispatched the animal, then the trapper has to turn the animal in to the DNR, which donates the fur to the Minnesota Trappers Association for tan/fur kits for education purposes.

During the regular season, Buntjer uses all of the parts of the animals he traps, and sells as much of that as possible — and it's more than just fur that's useful. For example, while most beaver fur is ground up into felt that becomes items such as cowboy hats, beavers also have what's called a castor sac, located between the pelvis and the base of the tail, which secretes a substance they use to mark their territory. Castor sacs are valuable because they are used to make imitation vanilla flavoring — although not as commonly anymore, since lab-created vanilla is now a lot cheaper to produce.

To sell the furs from the animals he traps, Buntjer works with fur buyers who run routes within a reasonable distance of Luverne. He can sell the furs one of three ways: in the round, which is the whole animal, as is, and frozen; green, where the animal is skinned and cleaned, then frozen; or finished, which involves scraping off the fat from the leather, then stretching and drying the fur. Finished furs require the most work, and therefore sell for the most money.

Once a fur buyer purchases the furs from Buntjer, he or she will bale a large number of furs and then ship them all over the world. Most coyote furs stay in North America, while raccoon end up in Russia and muskrat go to Korea.

In addition to sharing his skills with his own children, Buntjer enjoys working with area youths who are interested in trapping.

"The education side of it has been a lot of fun for me," he said.

At the end of each school year, Luverne Elementary students usually go on a field trip to Blue Mounds State Park, and Buntjer gives a presentation on animals that live nearby and lets them touch the animals' furs.

He has also logged a lot of hours teaching trapping classes through the Minnesota Trappers Association, which are required for people seeking trappers' licenses.

Part of Buntjer's goal in trapping education is to correct the misconception that trapping is evil or malicious. In his view, trapping actually helps take care of the environment.

When a certain species becomes too concentrated, he explained, it becomes easier for disease to spread among that species and severely decimate the population. For example, when coyotes are overpopulated, they will commonly contract mange, which makes their fur fall out. Mangy coyotes cannot keep themselves warm, and freeze to death. Buntjer believes it's more humane to "help maintain more of a balance" through trapping.

He also pointed out that traps used in 2021 are very different from the traps shown in movies. Modern traps have thicker jaws, which leave a gap that allows for blood flow to the foot. He shared that on some occasions, he's found a trapped animal actually sleeping while caught in a trap. It's also common that when he releases an animal, it runs off like nothing even happened. Buntjer has accidentally caught his own hand in some of his traps before, and he was not injured.

"Just like a deer hunter wants to make as clean a shot as possible to make sure the animal is taken care of as quickly and humanely as possible," he, too, does everything he can to make the animal as comfortable as it can be or to dispatch it as quickly as he can.

Opponents of the fur industry sometimes argue that fur is bad for the environment, but Buntjer says that fur is actually the most sustainable clothing people could wear. It's renewable and biodegradable, and it's efficient in terms of warmth. Faux fur, he explained, is actually made of oil products and takes centuries to decompose.

A lack of education about trapping is one of the reasons trapping is becoming a forgotten sport, Buntjer said. Another reason is that in the modern world, people aren't accustomed to the quiet, stillness and patience it takes to be a successful trapper. Buntjer loves the thrill of the puzzle enough that, for the foreseeable future, he intends to keep 4:30 a.m. vigil with his trapping route.