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 with Rob Miskosky

Little Bait Thieves

The pitter patter of small feet on the wooden floor of the cabin stirred me from my slumber. It was nearly 2:00 a.m. and I had been asleep for nearly three hours. At first, I wasn’t sure what I was listening to, but it soon became apparent that something had managed to get into the cabin.

Fumbling for my flashlight on the nightstand, I worked my way out of my sleeping bag. Flashlight in hand, I pointed the flashlight’s beam in the direction I’d heard the sound. Sure enough, looking at me through the beam, half in and half out of my son Dakota’s boot, was Mustela erminea, the small but highly predatory ermine.

Better known as the short-tailed weasel, ermine are Alberta’s most voracious predator, are purely carnivorous in their search for food—veggies are out of the question—and are highly opportunistic, poking their noses into every nook and cranny they can find in their search for something to eat.

Needing to consume up to 40% of their own body weight daily, this guy was most likely on the prowl for mice, shrews or voles under the cabin’s floorboards.

The author took this photo just moments after the ermine stole his marten bait.
The previous owner of my trapline had relayed a story to me of an ermine that had entered this same cabin one night while he slept. Having an ermine around the cabin yard site can be a good thing, as with their presence comes empty mousetraps. However, as the previous trapper told me, “When I felt his cold nose press against my cheek while I was trying to sleep, I knew he had to go.”

He fumbled for his .22 and then shot the intruder on the cabin floor using his flashlight beam for light.

“Dakota! Wake up!” I whispered to my son, who was now slowly waking out if his slumber. “There’s a weasel in the cabin!”

Not wanting to shoot this efficient little killing machine, I grabbed one of my shoes and fired it at Dakota’s boot. At which point the little white speedster ducked back down into the boot and then popped back up, mocking me. I missed!

Another shoe found the boot, only this time the ermine decided he’d had enough of the bright light and flying objects; he suddenly leapt from the boot and disappeared back to wherever it was he came from.

Being the ferocious hunters they are and as bold as brass, I was happy to see him go; after all, there are accounts of ermine attacking people when they feel threatened. I also didn’t want a 34 sharp-toothed bedmate in my sleeping bag.
Members of the family mustelidae, especially the ermine, have always fascinated my son Dakota and I. Referred to as mustelids, in Alberta, they include badgers, river otters, wolverines, martens, fishers, minks, least weasels, long-tailed weasels, and the feisty ermine.

Regardless of their curiosity, comical antics and cute looks, the ermine is a deadly killer. Being the ermine’s prey, once discovered, there is no escape. The ermine will try to get as close as possible and with blinding speed, it will jump on the back of its prey and repeatedly bite the neck and base of the skull of its victim until it is dead. The throat is often targeted as well. Prey even includes the much larger snowshoe hare, which is several times the size of an ermine, as well as birds as big as grouse.

As good a hunter as the ermine is, they also define the word thief, because nothing can steal a trapper’s bait faster than this little white burglar can.

I managed to take the photo at left after witnessing this guy steal my bait right in front of my eyes, and just seconds after putting it into a marten box. With his face full of bait, he disappeared at the base of a tree and then returned, empty-mouthed, looking for more.

This brazen little bandit can whip in and out of a marten box as fast as lightning, usually with your bait firmly clenched between its razor-sharp teeth. This penchant for stealing bait often results in the ermine being caught in the marten trap.

Ermine, for the most part, aren’t specifically targeted by trappers, but most trappers will catch a few each year in sets made for other furbearers. For my son Dakota and I, to date, we have captured 41 of the little bait thieves without setting a single ermine trap, which is generally a large rattrap set in a small box. All of them, with the exception of two, were caught in 120 Conibears set for marten. The other two were caught in the much larger 220 Conibear set for fisher, something I had never witnessed prior to this trapping season.

The average lifespan of the ermine is just a short two years; however, ermine are Alberta’s most abundant predator. They are strictly carnivorous, daring, and able to take down an animal many times their own size. What’s not to like about the ermine. ■

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