Throughout West Virginia, trappers are heading afield to try to catch beavers, mink, raccoons, otters, foxes, bobcats and other furbearing creatures.
The good news is they’ll get plenty of fresh air and exercise as they check their traps and prepare pelts for the market. The bad news is they won’t get much money for those pelts.
“The fur market is not looking good again this year,” said Rich Rogers, furbearer project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources. “North American Fur Auctions appears to be having financial problems, and that’s not a promising sign.”
North American Fur Auctions, a Canada-based fur auction house, recently entered into an agreement with Finland-based Saga Furs designed to shore up the Canadian company’s financial condition.
In a statement, Douglas Lawson, president and CEO of NAFA, said Saga “will start financing some of NAFA’s fur producing customers with immediate effect.”
Lawson said the agreement opens the door for NAFA’s and Saga’s solicitation teams “in order to better serve the needs of the fur producing community in both Europe and North America.”
How the agreement might affect fur prices is not yet clear. In recent years, poor market prices have convinced many trappers in the Mountain State that the potential financial gain isn’t worth the effort it takes to spend the winter months setting traps, skinning and fleshing pelts, and curing hides for sale.
Rogers said most of the trappers still in the game are what he calls “true enthusiasts” who are willing to put in the time and hang onto the pelts until fur-market conditions improve.
“One thing that might help is a new law that goes into effect this year,” he said. “It allows the sale and purchase of various wildlife parts — skulls, claws, etc. There will be a market among trappers for urine and glands such as beaver castors.
“Those items have always been sold, but it never was legal. The Legislature changed the law so people wouldn’t run afoul of the law.”
Rogers said the state’s furbearer populations are healthy, at least for the most part. He said there is ongoing concern about muskrats, whose numbers have declined.
“We need some research to figure out what’s going on with muskrats, why they’re dying,” he added. “It’s a real mystery right now. Muskrats have demonstrated the ability to live in some of the most awful, polluted conditions imaginable, so what the heck is going on now that’s causing them to die? We need to find out.”
Rogers believes toxic algae blooms might be one factor, but he’s sure there are others.
“There’s not going to be a single cause or a single solution,” he said. “It will take time and research to figure things out.”
He said red fox populations also have declined a bit, but the reason for the decline “is pretty apparent: When coyotes move into an area, red foxes tend to move out.”
The rest of the state’s principal furbearers — raccoon, bobcat, gray fox, otter, fisher and beaver — all appear to be doing quite well. Otters have become abundant enough that there’s now a hue and cry to raise the yearly trapping bag limit from one to two.
Rogers said that won’t happen until the DNR completes its research into the species’ age structure and reproductive rate within the state, and that probably won’t be finished any time soon.
“We’re collecting otter carcasses from trappers so we can examine the females’ reproductive tracts to see how many young they’ve borne,” he explained. “We’re asking trappers to give us the carcasses of the otters they catch. We’re offering a $20 gift card as a reward.”
The state’s trapping season will close on Feb. 29 for all species except beaver. The beaver season will close on March 31.