Fur-tagging day illuminates Maine trapping tradition

With a table full of pelts on display in front of him, wildlife biologist John DePue summed up the role that trapping has played in Maine and the rest of the United States.

“It’s a national heritage,” said DePue, who works for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “This is how this country was developed and founded.”

That sentiment may anger some: Animal rights activists have regularly protested against those who sell or wear fur.

Still, here in Maine, the tradition of trapping animals remains a key management tool that wildlife biologists rely on.

“We have management systems and we have a targeted number of animals we try to catch, so we put a limit on [certain animals, including fisher and pine marten] to reach our target so that we are managing the population in a sustainable manner,” said DePue.

As population trends change, DePue pointed out, the DIF&W can adjust limits and avoid harming the population.

Maine Game Warden Jim Fahey checks out a pile of furs that were presented for tagging on Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife office in Bangor. The furs, including 42 pine marten, one fisher, one mink, one bobcat, one coyote and four beavers, were taken by trappers Alfred Meister of Jackson and John Meister of Old Town. Wardens stage fur-tagging days for trappers at the conclusion of trapping season. The furs are then transported to auction, where they are sold. (BDN photo by John Holyoke)

On Jan. 4, several trappers brought their catch to Bangor from the fall season, which ran from Nov. 25 through Dec. 31.Trappers can also take furs to one of nearly 50 tagging stations around the state.

On the table as DePue talked: A sizeable collection of furs that brothers Alfred Meister of Jackson and John Meister of Old Town had brought to town.

Making up that collection: 42 pine marten — each trapper is allowed 25 marten per season — four beaver, a fisher, an otter, a bobcat, a mink and a coyote.

Maine Game Warden Jim Fahey, who was tagging fur with colleague Shannon Fish, put pencil to paper and offered a quick estimate of the value of the furs: About $3,000, if prices at auction end up as expected.

Alfred Meister of Jackson displays 42 pine marten pelts that he and his brother, John Meister of Old Town, trapped during the recently completed season. The Meisters took the furs to the Bangor Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife office on Friday, Jan. 4, where an annual fur-tagging day was being run by game wardens. BDN photo by John Holyoke

The furs tagged in Bangor will eventually be taken to the North American Fur Auction in Toronto, Canada where they will be sold Feb. 17-23.

“Fur price is all based on supply and demand, and right now I think the trend is that there’s a demand, so the prices are higher,” Fahey said. “When trappers hear about good fur prices, people get back into it and resume their trapping effort. Some people might trap every year because it’s a pastime like hunting or fishing. Those that are following the market may not always trap.”

Trapping isn’t cheap, whether it’s a pastime or a full-fledged money-making operation, DePue pointed out.

“When fur prices were a lot higher and fuel prices were a lot lower, there were some trappers who were making a living at it,” DePue said. “But most of the trappers today are trapping because they enjoy doing it. They enjoy learning about the animals, pursuing the animals, being outdoors.”

Add in the labor involved — simply preparing a single beaver pelt can take an experienced trapper about a half hour, an inexperienced trapper far longer than that — and it’s apparent that trappers aren’t getting rich.

“Once you start adding up the hours you’ve got into it, your hourly wage is pretty low,” DePue said.

Metal fur tags, which are attached to each fur that a trapper registers.. (BDN photo by John Holyoke)

Fahey pointed to the furs assembled by the Meister brothers and said the trappers are among the many Maine trappers who truly know their craft.

“These guys are experienced at handling fur, so there’s no blemishes,” Fahey said. “But someone who’s a novice, and they’re scraping the fat and the meat off the hide, they might make a mistake and they’ll make a slice where they don’t want it. That’s going to be a deduction when the fur-buyer assesses the value.”

DePue said Maine has about 2,000 licensed trappers. That number has remained fairly constant over the years, he said.

And those trappers are expecting pretty high prices for the furs they produce this year, DePue said.

Among DePue’s estimated prices for Maine furbearers this year:
– Pine martens: $40-$50
– Beaver: $$25-$30, up to $40 for a large “prime” animal. (Prime refers to a pelt that is in top condition.)
– Otters: $60-$85, with really nice specimens drawing $100 or more.
– Coyotes: About $30.
– Bobcats: About $60
– Fishers: About $50.

A year ago Maine trappers tagged about 16,000 beavers, according to DePue. Beavers are plentiful and are typically the most-trapped animal in Maine.

“Of all the species [tagged each year], at least half [of the animals] are beavers,” DePue said.

And while Americans have become familiar with anti-fur advertisements and protests, DePue said that U.S. opinions on the matter don’t drive the fur-based economy worldwide.

“The demand for furs is not driven by North America,” DePue said. “The demand for furs is driven by Russia, China and the Koreas. Those are the markets where the furs are going, where the garments are going to be made and sold.”

DePue said the rise of the Chinese economy has created a thriving fur economy in that country. And he said that fur-buyers make important decisions based on circumstances far from North America.

“One of [the North American Fur Auction’s] determinants of prices is early fall temperatures in Russia and China,” DePue said. “They can kind of make some predictions on how well furs are going to sell [based on that].”

DePue said trappers in Maine enjoy opportunities that don’t exist in many other places.

“We have a great diversity of animals to pursue here in Maine,” he said. “We’re one of the few states in the northeast where you can harvest marten … fisher. There’s beavers and and otters and mink … gray foxes and red foxes and coyotes.”

And both DePue and Fahey stressed that trapping is an activity that helps wildlife managers do their jobs.

“It’s a renewable resource that can be utilized, and they help manage the resource by removing surplus animals,” Fahey said.

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.