Mostly Trapping

Outdoors: These times are tough for trappers
Apr 14, 2020 07:49 ET

[Reprinted from original]

The Massachusetts trapping season, which began Nov. 1 has been long over for bobcat, coyote, fox, weasel, fisher, mink, river otter, muskrat, opossum, raccoon and skunk. It closes for beaver this week on April 15.

The more-lengthy season is necessary to control their excessive populations that now annually cause great damage from damming and flooding. In addition, their pelts are still prime.

Beavers are consequently trapped more than any other Massachusetts fur-bearer. Fishers are second. Compared to previous decades, the number of all fur-bearers harvested is remarkably lower. Local trappers are facing existential problems as times have never been worse for them. Handicapping regulations, like prohibiting traps that can drown a beaver, have pushed veterans out of the tradition and discouraged newcomers. Many are giving up the tradition, thinking it’s no longer worth the effort.

To be a trapper in Massachusetts, one has to go through mandatory trapper education classes. That includes training to use traps. In addition, all purchased traps must be registered with a valid number embedded or cut into them. Each trap must also have an attached metal tag bearing the owner’s name, town, and registration number, which must be renewed every two years. Trap registration fees are $5, and the annual resident trapper’s license is $35.50.

Only cage or box type traps are legal for taking fur-bearers. Some can cost several hundred dollars. Common rat traps, though, may be used for taking weasels. Traps that grip the body are permitted in only special cases to address specific types of serious wildlife damage by beavers and muskrats. Steel-jaw foothold traps, padded jaw traps, body-gripping traps, snares, deadfalls are prohibited.

Harvest reporting or pelt checking is mandatory for beaver, coyote, fisher, fox or mink. Each pelt must be reported within four days of harvest either online or by presentation at an official check station. At that time, a confirmation number must be attached and must remain on the pelt until it’s prepared for mounting, sold, or tanned.

It doesn’t help that, with a few notable exceptions, demand for furs — both wild and farmed — is at rock bottom. Meanwhile, fur prices have plummeted for five straight years.

In most of the fashion world, furs have gone the way of men’s arm garters, especially for young people who have grown up with anti-trapping sentiment and less awe than their predecessors for unaffordable luxury. The huge world demand for wolf-resembling coyote fur has been a remarkable exception.

Saskatchewan just sold 40,000 coyote pelts — more than ever. Their trapping license sales, unlike those in most of the rest of North America, have consequently skyrocketed. Canada’s colder climate creates denser, finer coyote fur, which is bringing their trappers $116 per pelt, the highest since the late 1970s.

The high demand stems mostly from many fashion houses using wolf-like coyote fur for trimming parkas, which are currently very popular. Our eastern coyote, which is variable in color and grows courser hair, in contrast, recently sold for a far-less-rewarding $54. That relatively low price is a 30% increase from the year before, though.

Bobcats from the colder, far-West fetched $300-$400. Like the eastern coyote pelts, our local, less-luxurious bobcats commanded just $30-60. Lynx from up north can bring $70 at the fur auctions, but local fishers, though luxurious, are disappointingly auctioning for only $20-$40 because of decreased demand.

Otter, the fur with the greatest durability, brings just $20-$30. The once-popular red fox, like many other long-haired furs, has plummeted in demand and now brings only $10-$15. Over-production in the fox farm market creating an over-supply is partly to blame. But long-haired furs in general just aren’t in fashion now.

Once-popular raccoon fur, the kind that the late Davis Crompton from Crompton & Knowles of Worcester proudly wore to Harvard football games and winter birding trips, has been selling for only $7-17. Some women valuing a slender look feel that raccoon coats are just too heavy and bulky.

If you’ve ever skinned, stretched and fleshed out a fat raccoon, you know how much time and effort are involved just to prepare it for auction. Forty years ago, leaf-peeping trappers would pick up road-kills on their way up north and commonly bring home a dozen carcasses that would each sell for $20-30. Raccoons were worth all the effort back then.

Our eastern beaver recently brought only $11 at auction, and wild mink just $9. Even at that low price, very few wild mink pelts were actually bought. Muskrats returned a paltry $3.59. Making matters worse for trappers, skins that weren’t sold got held back, further increasing the supply and likely lowering next year’s values.

The last fur boom were back in 1979-80, and again briefly in the late ’80s. Then, all the high-fashion, winter-season magazine covers like Vogue regularly featured gorgeous models wearing luxurious, full-length fox, mink, lynx and sable coats. Next to a diamond, an expensive fur coat back then was indeed both a status symbol and “girl’s best friend.” Today, a fur coat that isn’t faux can in the wrong place initiate foe-fire.

At an opera fundraiser last month, I complimented a woman on her fox jacket, which was stunning. To my surprise, she defensibly responded, “It’s faux fur!” The invention of inexpensive synthetic, insulating textiles for clothing has hammered another nail in the coffin of fur fashion, fur farming, and trapping.

I didn’t want to spoil her evening and tell her that faux furs are typically polymer fibers like acrylic, modacrylic, or polyester — all forms of plastic and made from chemicals derived from coal. Extracting coal and manufacturing these chemicals severely harms the environment — and these faux furs are not biodegradable. So when they’re discarded — and they quickly are because they’re cheaply made, fashionably transient and not durable — they remain almost forever wasted in landfills — unless they’re burned and pollute the air. Wool is a far better alternative. And owners of fur coats will tell you that fur can last generations.

American fur attitudes have been severely influenced both by an increased awareness and sensitivity to the threats on endangered species — and a heightened sympathy demanding more humane behavior towards wildlife and even domestic farm animals. The vast majority of the furs used in the fashion industry today, though, are not from endangered species. The degree to which animals suffer in the harvesting, though, is a legitimate question — and one that most of us avoid considering when it comes to eating our steaks and chops.

PETA has been greatly responsible for those changing attitudes as it has succeeded in striking consciences by questioning the ethics and necessity of furs in a world of textile alternatives. Considering vegetarian alternatives, they’re now applying the same reasoning to end our exploitation of farm animals to satisfy our carnivorous inclinations.

The future of trapping is vulnerable because it will ultimately depend on shifting public attitudes that will be impacted by education, philosophical propaganda and economic pressures. Will the public recognize the necessity of controlling damaging species? Will the public once again recognize the intrinsic value of furs for warmth and beauty as much as they presently accept the value of leather in their shoes, belts, and bags?

Will the public understand that furs are valuable renewable resources that would otherwise be wasted by death in a natural world of tooth and claw that is never painless? And maybe most practically, will trappers be able to convince the public that they can harvest just as humanely as our farmers do?