Pa. trapping enjoying upswing in popularity

By Ad Crable

Contributing Writer

Lancaster, Pa. – An odd thing is happening amid the
disheartening slide of numbers of hunters in Pennsylvania: For the
fourth straight year, the ranks of those who trap or hunt
furbearing animals has increased.

The most recent figures from the Pennsylvania Game Commis-sion
show nearly 24,000 furtakers in the state. That’s up from 18,500 in
2001.

In an age where &#8220antis” are emboldened and we’re told
most kids would rather play video games than roam outside, what in
the name of Jeremiah Johnson is going on?

Several trends seem to be at play, including an upswell of
youths to the sport.

Heightened interest in taking now-plentiful coyotes and the
relatively new limited season on bobcats certainly play a part.
Even more of a factor is a resurgence in the demand for fur
clothing overseas.

Though highly volatile and still far below what they were in the
1960s and 1970s, the prices a local trapper can get for fur has
gone up about 20 percent over the last couple of years.

Muskrat and raccoon pelts, especially are in demand. A dried
muskrat pelt will fetch $7 or $8 now, compared to a buck five years
ago. Raccoon prices have doubled in value, to $14 or $15.

Gray foxes bring the highest price, about $25, followed by mink,
$16-$23, and beaver, $19. Other prices paid at a January
Pennsylvania Trappers Associa-tion fur auction: coyote and red fox,
$15; raccoon, $11; muskrat, $6.66; skunk, $4; deer hides $3.65; and
squirrel tails, 18 cents each.

The popularity of fur-lined coats, hats, handbags and other
garments never went out of fashion in places like Russia. But now,
fur is hot among the middle classes in places such as China.

&#8220It seems it’s not frowned upon in the public eye like
it was seven or eight years ago,” observes Mike Spittle, a trapper
and fur buyer who lives outside of Elizabethtown in Lancaster
County.

Like a lot of things these days, many of the furs from
Pennsylvania go first to China, where they are sewn into garments.
About 70 percent of U.S. furs end up in Russia. Others are shipped
back to the United States.

Most of the fur these days comes from commercial fur ranches in
the former Soviet Union and Scandinavian countries, but the demand
is breathing new life into trapping in this country.

Also a factor in Pennsylvania trapping’s upsurge is the
legalization in 2006 of cable restraints, an inexpensive type of
humane snare that helps trappers catch foxes and coyotes in snow
and conditions where foothold traps don’t work well.

The devices, which can only be set after Jan. 1, use relaxing
locks, flexible cable, swivels and breakaway stops and hooks to
protect cats and dogs, as well as larger animals, such as deer.
Trappers have to undergo a mandatory training course to use
them.

But most interestingly in trapping’s resurgence is the high
percentage of youths learning to run trap lines.

The southeastern district of the Pennsylvania Trappers
Associa-tion (www.patrappers.com) offers four training schools a
year for new trappers. Each class has 100 to 120 students and about
80 percent are under 20 years old, reports trapper/instructor
Spittle.

&#8220What it is, is the kids have mastered all the video
games there are to play and they’re looking for something else to
do,” says Spittle. &#8220Trapping excites them. It’s completely
different and they get wound up about it.”

Often, kids will be dragged to a youth field days event held by
many sportsmen’s clubs and have their interest piqued at the
trapping demonstration, says Spittle, one of about 1,564 licensed
trappers from Lancaster County.

&#8220It reminds them that’s what their dads or granddads
used to do.”

Also noteworthy are the numbers of former trappers returning to
the fold, even if in a limited way.

&#8220A lot of people are getting back into trapping sort of
to remind them of their youth,” says Matt Lovallo, the Game
Commission’s furbearer biologist.

The renewed interest thrills the 48-year-old Spittle, who has
trapped since he was 10. &#8220My dad was a trapper. I got into
it as a farm kid to make some extra money.

&#8220It was something to do before school. You get your
chores done, check your traps and still make the school bus.”

Now, he sets a trap line between his home and his
father-in-law’s farm where he works, 11 miles away.

&#8220It’s a challenge,” he says of his enduring love of
trapping. &#8220You have to outsmart those critters on their
own terms. You’ve got to figure out how they work.”

Population control of the animals benefits farmers and developed
areas, he adds.

&#8220The biggest thing isn’t the money,” he says.
&#8220Both my children have trapped with me ever since I
carried them on the trap line in a pack basket. My daughter, who is
22 and a registered nurse, is my beaver-trapping partner.”

Few trappers in Pennsylvania are as hard-core as Phil
&#8220Trapper” Brown, who lives outside of Gap in Lancaster
County.

Last fall and winter, he trapped 90 days, nearly every day of
the season. He frequently has 102 traps out every day in Lancaster,
Chester and York counties. It takes him 10 or 11 hours to check all
of them.

He’s caught more than 1,000 foxes in a season three times.
Earlier this year, he and some friends placed the pelts of 1,185
red foxes he had caught on top of his storage barn, truck and
surrounding ground.

A friend snapped a picture from a bucket truck and posted it on
a hunter/trapper scrapbook on the Game Commission’s Web site. The
photo became somewhat of a legend.

Last year, Brown sold $17,000 worth of furs, but claims, with
expenses, he pretty much broke even. Now 47, he has been trapping
ever since a neighbor girl showed him the ropes when he was around
11.

Like Spittle, trapping has been a fixture in his life.
&#8220Some people might not like it,” he says. &#8220But
the solitude of the early morning is pretty neat. There’s so much
you see that (other) people never see.

&#8220I can’t imagine a world where kids weren’t interested
in hunting and trapping and fishing. I just never outgrew it …
Maybe the world is changing back again.”

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