By DAVE ANDERSON
For the Monitor
January 29. 2006 8:00AM
el Liston shuffles out of a barn where dozens of fox and coyote foothold traps hang suspended on nails outside. Inside, hundreds of weasel box traps are neatly stacked alongside the wire cage traps used for live-trapping skunks, raccoons, opossum, woodchucks and an occasional domestic rabbit or feral housecat.
Liston, 56, uses a half-dozen different types of traps for different species of furbearers. Some are designed for use on land, others for underwater. In addition to the canine traps, weasel boxes and wire cages, he uses other specialized traps in water to trap muskrats, mink, beavers and otters.
Liston, the president of the New Hampshire Trappers Association, is typically up at dawn each day and checking as many as 100 traps set near his home in Strafford. This year, he says, he's had to cut down.
"All traps must be checked every 24 hours. Maintaining a long trapline is time-consuming and expensive," Liston says. "With fur prices low, gas prices high and animals very scarce this winter, my time is better spent otherwise."
There are approximately 400 licensed fur-trappers in the state, Liston says. Of those, only a few trap for a living.
"They are the last hardcore trappers who commune with nature in this fashion," he says. "They enjoy the lifestyle."
Because of the time commitment, expense and low fur prices, he says most trappers are now hobbyists.
What trappers are after is fur: They catch beaver, coyote, skunk, weasel, fisher, fox, mink, muskrat, otter, raccoon and opossum, and they sell the pelts. Different species - as well as the quality of the pelt - bring different dollar values. And dollar values have gone down: The worldwide demand for fur has diminished while the supply has remained relatively constant. And many furs now come from ranch-raised animals, rather than those caught in the wild.
"A fisher pelt worth approximately $200 in the '60s is worth about $25 today," Liston says. "Multiplied by the limit of 15 fisher allowed per season in southern New Hampshire, the potential profit in fisher pelts has fallen from $3,000 in the 1960s to $375 today."
Liston figures $200 in 1960 is more like $800 in today's dollars. "That's $12,000 in value for the same 15 fisher pelts now worth about $375."
Liston started trapping seriously six years ago. A former engineer, he was able to retire comfortably at a young age. He spent his time growing food for deer and hunting deer, and eventually that led him to coyote hunting and trapping.
He eventually became an instructor, teaching aspiring trappers what they need to know to get a state license. He also spends time advocating for trappers; in the face of increasing scrutiny, he says, the practice needs to be better understood by the general public.
An old tradition
In the 1600s, the pelts were the standard coin of colonial
Today, a beaver pelt fetches around $10 to $20. And the market has moved elsewhere. Most trappers ship their furs to the large Canadian Fur Harvesters Auction or the North American Fur Auction in
As once-strong European markets have flagged, the fur trade has become a cultural niche market. Russians favor raccoon; Greeks favor otter. The British royal family purchases white ermine fur for hats for palace guards. Asian markets for fur and many wild animal products remain strong.
The epicenter of the East Coast furrier trade is located in the famed garment district of New York City. Hasidic Jewish culture includes garments trimmed with fur. Recently, hip-hop fashion has embraced liberal use of furs.
This winter, Liston limited his trapping to square, spring-loaded "conibear" traps set underwater or ice for otter, mink, muskrat and beaver. A conibear trap "fires" when the animal swims through an opening and touches a trigger wire that releases two powerful spring-loaded arms.
Trapping seasons for these animals generally run from Nov. 1 to April 10. While there is a season limit of 10 otters, there is no limit on beavers - trappers can "expect to trap one every night," Liston says.
Liston favors "maintenance trapping" to keep local beaver populations in balance with food supplies. He traps adults and 2-year-olds who venture to the outer edge of their territory. He avoids trapping near a lodge, where the 1-year-olds and new kits spend their time. With regular maintenance trapping, he says, beaver populations remain stable, averting a situation where landowners are overrun or beavers starve.
Trappers "provide critical data needed to understand changes in wildlife populations locally,"says Eric Orff, a biologist with the state's Fish and Game Department.
Orff says the annual reports trappers submit gives the state a picture of food availability, rodent populations and disease prevalence.
"Since trappers trap the same areas year after year they know what is going on from one year to the next," he says. "Fur trappers are the state's eyes on the wild side."
But not everyone sees trapping as a positive. As more people move to once-rural areas, a longtime way of life comes into conflict with what some see as cruel or inhumane sport. The National Trappers Association recently released a video confronting opponents' ethical concerns. It emphasizes humane trapping techniques: foothold traps, which are designed to restrain an animal until the trapper arrives, and Conibear traps, which kill instantly.
Naturalist Meade Cadot, the executive director of the Harris Center for Conservation Education, takes issue with the practice for different reasons. He says the commercial aspect drives some trappers to take too many animals.
"Often, the number one driver in a species take, which creates a potential for over-harvest, is the price paid per pelt - or what a trapper believes he'll be paid based on past years," he says. Typically, it is fur buyers, not trappers, who make big bucks."
Cadot also cites lack of trap selectivity as a potential problem with trapping.
"Fishers . . . are easy to trap and hence are more susceptible to over harvest than, say fox or coyote," he says. "When we looked at fisher over-harvest in the late 1970s, we found that 30 percent of fishers taken were caught in traps set for fox. A fisher might be accidentally caught in a legal trap set for coyotes outside the December fisher trapping season."
But Liston says the state closely watches animal population levels, and it only allows a only a certain number of people to trap each year.
Those who are closely tied to the land understand and appreciate the trapper's role, he says.
"People with an agrarian background - farmers, landowners, people who understand our rural heritage - they need a local trapper's services," he says. "Why? Because cornfields are flooded and fruit trees are girdled by beavers, chickens are killed by weasels."
Trapping, he says, traditionally helped maintain more stable populations of fur-bearers, avoiding their natural tendency to boom and then bust.
With increasing human population, rural sprawl and associated habitat changes, trappers are increasingly relegated to a role of animal damage control, removing nuisance wildlife such as raccoons, skunks, squirrels and bats from attics, basements, garages and crawl spaces under porches.
"Crisis trapping," Liston calls it. He cites one example of a landowner who hesitated to give him required permission to trap beavers. Later, the landowner called back in crisis mode when they became a nuisance. "Regrettably, that landowner now views all the beavers as a nuisance."
"This is what it's down to: most trappers only bother trapping near roads where animals can become a nuisance to people." Liston says "Prices paid for fur are so low and the trappers are all getting so old that nobody bothers to run a trapline deep in the woods anymore."
Fur is a renewable resource, even if fur trappers are not. As Liston puts it, "Fur trappers connect modern society to what's out there. If we lose the trappers, we'll lose that connection."
(Naturalist, Dave Anderson is the Director of Education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Forest Society's website at forestsociety .org.)
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