West Virginia’s furbearer trapping season will open Nov. 7, but how many people will participate?
In a year dominated by a global pandemic, it’s anybody’s guess. Rich Rogers, furbearer project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources, believes he and other die-hard trappers will still be out there, setting traps and running traplines. He isn’t sure about anyone else.
“Trappers are going to trap because they enjoy it,” Rogers said. “They don’t worry too much about how much they’re going to get paid [for the pelts].”
That’s probably a good thing, because right now it’s anyone’s guess as to how much fur buying will actually take place. One of trappers’ largest domestic markets, the North American Fur Auction, has closed.
“That’s problematic,” Rogers said. “That means there is only one major auction house that is taking in fur.”
That would be the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, Ontario, but Rogers said the coronavirus pandemic is affecting potential buyers’ ability to travel there.
“Because of COVID-19, buyers from China, Russia and Europe can’t come,” he explained. “And even if travel bans get lifted, there will still be restrictions. It will also be tough for state trapping associations to have their fur sales.
“[West Virginia] had its sale last March [before the pandemic started causing lockdowns]. There was more fur there than I thought there would be, but the quantities were still low.”
The prices those furs commanded, he added, “weren’t very good.”
When prices are low, trappers have little incentive to spend hundreds of hours trapping animals and preparing the pelts for market. Rogers said the number of pelts sold last year reflected a soft market.
“Only 849 muskrat pelts changed hands between buyers,” he continued. “That’s a pittance compared to what it used to be. The other numbers were lower than normal, too — 579 opossum pelts, 4,000 raccoon pelts, 475 gray fox pelts.
“The only species that had numbers go up were bobcat and coyote, and that’s because people really seem to enjoy trapping them right now.”
Rogers said people enjoy trapping those two species because they’re difficult to catch.
“Trappers like a challenge,” he continued. “Once you become really proficient at trapping, catching beavers and muskrats and foxes isn’t as much of a challenge. Bobcats are a challenge. Coyotes are a challenge.”
Those trappers who bother to venture out this fall and winter should enjoy success, Rogers said.
“Everything holds promise,” he explained. “Last year was a good mast year. Prey species that rely on mast, particularly rodents, went through the winter in good shape and had good reproduction.
“Predator species follow that curve. They feed on prey animals, and when there is lots of prey, the predators do very well.”
Rogers said raccoons, which are omnivores, should be particularly abundant this year because they eat both plant-based foods and smaller mammals.
The question will be whether trappers can get adequately paid for the raccoons they catch.
“There still will be some fur bought this year,” he said. “In a soft market, buyers sometimes buy pelts and keep them in cold storage until the next auction. The problem is, no one can afford to do that forever.
“Fur buying is a tricky, risky business. You have to know what you’re doing or you’ll lose your pants. That’s why only a handful of buyers are left in West Virginia.”
Rogers said trappers who get an otter can be assured of making at least a little money, due to an ongoing research project.
“We’re still giving $20 gift cards for otter carcasses,” he said. “Trappers should leave the head on the carcass, skin it, freeze it get it to the nearest DNR wildlife office or arrange for one of our biologists to pick it up. We’ll also need the check-in number for the otter, and the approximate location where it was taken.”