Mostly Trapping

Fur trapper weighs in on plans to tackle rabies threats
Feb 26, 2020 15:11 ET

[Reprinted from original]

Original Title: Fur trapper weighs in amid Bath/Phippsburg plans to tackle rabies threats

BRUNSWICK — Nelson Frost has spent most of his life trapping wildlife, and preparing and selling their pelts. He also asserts that he’s an animal lover.

A flurry of rabid fox attacks on humans and pets that began last year has prompted officials in Bath and Phippsburg to formulate plans to trap and kill wildlife that most commonly carries rabies – such as foxes, raccoons and skunks – in order to curb the threat. Bath is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set wildlife traps this winter, and Phippsburg is putting residents who want to trap wildlife on their lands in touch with area fur trappers.

The plan to euthanize the animals has spurred an outcry, such as a “Save the Fox” Facebook page, among those who feel the mission is overly aggressive, particularly with infected and non-infected animals alike to be killed. Detractors feel the area’s natural ecosystems would be compromised.

“I can understand their passion about animals; I really love animals, too. But I know the other side of wildlife management control,” said Frost, a Brunswick resident and volunteer outdoor education instructor for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

“We teach them about wildlife and about carrying capacity of the land,” Frost said. “What people forget is, humans came in and took over the habitat of the animals. The animals really adapted quite well, and they started moving back in around the humans, and now we’re kind of living together.”

He agrees with the assertion that foxes are needed to control the mouse and squirrel populations. But the land can only hold so many predators, he noted:

“(T)hey want the foxes to control the mouse population, but nobody’s controlling the fox population. … So the fox population increases, and the density gets too much, and then disease takes over.”

By the end of summer and fall, food has dwindled. “They get diseases because they’re weak and hungry,” Frost said. “That’s where rabies, and distemper, and mange come in.”

He doesn’t enjoy killing animals, he said. “They’re going to die by starvation, by predation, by disease; nature will do it. And nature is not humane; nature is very cruel.”

That’s where hunting and trapping seasons, beginning in the fall, help reduce wildlife populations to carrying capacity levels, which amount to “breeding stock for next year,” he said.

“Why not have them die humanely, in the hands of somebody who knows what they’re doing” and be utilized to the fullest, Frost added.

Glancing at his basement workshop wall, on which about 10 skins were hung, he said, “those foxes up there, that’s something that’s valuable; that fur can be made into something that’s useful. Otherwise, if we just let them go and overpopulate and die of disease, they’re out there and the maggots will eat them.”

Trapping is a part-time vocation for Frost, who is a full-time power plant mechanic. The 63-year-old, who has trapped since he was 12, is also an animal damage control agent who removes unwanted animals from people’s properties.

“I don’t make money at it at this point; I just kind of cover my expenses,” he said.

Buying a few traps to start out can cost a few hundred dollars, Frost explained. He used fur sales to finance additional traps and tools for skinning and fleshing.

A key lesson Frost has learned along the way: the animals must teach the trappers how to catch them. Wildlife can go anywhere in Maine, “and you need to coax him to go into a little round circle about that big,” he said, making the shape of an “O” between his hands, “and get caught by the paw, so you can decide whether you want to harvest him or not.”

Frost demonstrated a foothold trap on his own hand, showing that the trap holds its object without cutting through the skin. He said he tends to release an animal if there aren’t many of that kind in the area.

The number of licensed fur trappers in Maine has averaged about 4,000 in the past decade, but there has been a 37% decline in the average number of trapping licenses since the 1980s, according to Shevenell Webb, furbearer and small mammal biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. Fur prices have dwindled in recent years; gray and red foxes were at $48 and $63 in 2012-13, respectively, and were at $15.75 and $13.25 in 2018-19, Webb said.

“Overall, for the amount of effort a trapper would put in for furs now, they are going to be paid less for that now,” due to decreased demand in market hotspots like China and Russia, said Scott Lindsay, a regional wildlife biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Some of that certainly has been from opposition to utilizing … fur-based products for clothing,” in favor of using synthetic or plant-based materials, he explained.

“If you knew how much work it takes to go catch a beaver in the wintertime, and skin it, and flesh it, and board it, and get it prepared for market, and then you get $6 or $7, you could make tons more money working at a drive-thru,” Frost said. “You’re not going to get rich trapping … but I dabble in it because I enjoy working with the skins, the animals, and the people.”

Although newly-developed traps are more effective in targeting specific animals, “and these animals are dispatched in humane manners,” Lindsay said, he sees the decline in demand continuing for the foreseeable future. “That’s too bad, because it is an important part of management of wildlife.”