By Abbey Adkison
For Reporting Texas
The equivalent of a superhero for farmers and ranchers in Williamson County wears camouflage fatigues and boots. He’s a man who would rather be outside checking traps than inside shuffling paperwork. And by doing what he loves, he saves tens of thousands of dollars for Texas agriculture every year.
Jack Bonner is the county trapper, employed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to take care of rogue wildlife that threatens Texas farms and ranches. The culprits range from pigs rooting up crops and beavers chewing through water treatment equipment, to snakes in neighborhoods and buzzards destroying pool furniture. But his real specialty is coyotes.
Growing up in a small town in the Panhandle, Bonner began his interest in trapping to help save his family’s chickens from being eaten by coyotes. “It started with just needing to save the chickens, I guess. And then it was fun,” Bonner said. “It started with calling and went to trapping.” He did some ranch work as a teenager where an old cowboy showed him the art of setting a trap to capture, but not kill, an animal.
Bonner, now 46, studied wildlife management but thinks trapping is something that is better learned in what he calls his “office” — the great outdoors. “You can’t really learn trapping itself, that’s just something you got to do,” he said. “There are a lot of people that are well-educated but don’t have a lot of field experience. I guess it’s kind of a dying breed.”
His supervisor, director of Texas Wildlife Services, Mike Bodenchuk, agrees. “There are less professional trappers in the U.S. than there are professional NFL players,” he said. There are about 160 total trappers in the state of Texas. Bodenchuk has extensive trapping experience himself and says men in their line of work are a special group. “These guys aren’t in trapping because they’re social butterflies,” he said.
Trappers are always on call. “I use the analogy of a fire department,” said Bodenchuk. “They know they’ll be putting out fires but they don’t know at which house.”
Trapping, like everything else in the state, has been affected by budget problems. Bonner’s job had been cut for budget reasons, but popular demand called for him to be reinstated.
Counties pay about $5,400 a month for trapping services, with the state, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or a ranchers’ association usually helping share the cost.
Williamson County had been footing the entire bill, so any homeowner could call for animal removal free of charge. However, if a judge decides that the county is allowed to charge residents or businesses, it could be difficult to decide who actually pays — a raccoon can be in everyone’s trash, but no neighbors would call because they don’t want to pay.
Bonner’s not worried about all that. “I guess it’s somebody else’s problem,” he said. “The ranchers, the judge, the commissioner’s court are all looking for ways to charge. ‘Are we going to charge this much for so many acres or not?’ And to me, it doesn’t matter. They’ve gone ahead and paid the position. I’ve still got the job so I’m just out trying to do my best.”
Though who owes the fees may not be his concern, Bonner values his role as helper to the Texas farmer and appreciates the support he received from the people who use his services. “When we had the commissioner’s court here all the farmers showed up who were losing crops to pigs. There was a lady who showed up who had buzzards tearing up a corner of her house,” he said. “All of these people showed up to stand up for the program, saying ‘Yes, we need that.’ And it was nice to see all the different people taking up for themselves but taking up for me, too.”
Despite skunk sprays, buzzard vomit and other parts of the job the layperson may not find pleasant, Bonner is fully immersed in what he loves. He says his wife doesn’t even mind him being on call for the coyotes. “She understands. I go out a lot at night and I camp in some of the places so I can hear them,” he said. “So it’s not like I’m sitting at a desk punching numbers, looking at the clock. Most of the time when I’m working I’m doing what I would be if I was off.”