This commentary is by Rohit Sharma, a resident of Roxbury.
The lead furbearer biologist at the Fish & Wildlife Department made a case for recreational trapping in her recent commentary, citing Massachusetts as a failed example where a ban on leghold trapping since 1996 has, according to her, resulted in an explosion in beaver population.
She also listed four prime reasons to allow trapping:
1. Conservation efforts cannot be carried out without lethal trapping.
2. There are no alternatives to gathering tissue and genetic samples for study except through lethal sampling.
3. The majority of Vermonters support recreational trapping.
4. Recreational trapping is essential because it provides food and fur.
Regarding the beaver population in Massachusetts: It is remarkable that the lead biologist chose to report only partial facts. Here are the missing facts:
- Beaver populations in Massachusetts almost doubled, from 12,800 in 1993 to 24,000 in 1996, before the trapping ban went into effect. Let me reiterate: the number doubled in three years when trapping was still legal.
- Beaver populations are self-regulating and territorial, and do not grow beyond available territory (one family every 0.4-1.4 stream kilometer). These data are from a key 1978 study published at UMass.
- The study also established that beaver populations subject to trapping show earlier sexual maturation of females (24 months as opposed to 32 months otherwise). Lethal trapping actually promotes population growth.
- Three long-term studies from Allegheny Park, New York, Sagehen Creek, California, and the Quabbin Reservation in Massachusetts have conclusively shown a sigmoidal pattern of beaver populations — there is increase, then decline, and eventually stabilization well below the potential 100% occupancy in numbers of available territory. The three studies yielded numbers between 35% and 60% of maximum capacity.
Trapping is not a management tool. In Massachusetts, just as in Vermont, there are only a few hundred trappers whose efforts cannot have an active effect on statewide population management. In other words, “in dubio pro natura”: When in doubt, let nature take its course and self-regulate, for it will. In beaver populations, in coyote populations, and many, many other species.
Trapping and conservation: Science thrives in collaboration and in the study of models. I will humbly suggest to Fish & Wildlife that it has quite literally 118 scientific models available to it of countries and states that have banned trapping, and yet their conservation efforts continue to thrive and flourish.
Costa Rica is a prime example, doing remarkable work in this field. Too brown, like me? How about our own states of California and Colorado? Too West Coast, you say? Well, how about good ol’ Massachusetts then? These are but only four examples — there are 114 others!
On whether trapping is essential to gathering data: About 200 years ago, the vastly complicated and problematic John James Audubon compiled a phenomenal work of ornithology. His “research” involved shooting, killing and gathering hundreds of birds a day.
Would ornithologists today be justified in following his example? Of course not, because there have been vast improvements in methodologies, and lethal sampling is not necessary. Here is a small list of alternatives to lethal sampling.
- Camera traps for studying population densities, habitat occupancy and behavioral patterns.
- Drones to access sensitive and/or inaccessible ecosystems.
- Fecal DNA sampling.
- Hair trapping.
- Skin swabbing.
- Saliva gathered non-invasively using baits on porous materials, mineral licks, remnants of prey, and damaged crops.
- DNA gathered from scent marks, snow footprints, urine, antlers, etc.
- Environmental DNA (e-DNA).
- Tissue samples from roadkill, and animals dying of natural causes.
These methods have been used in lieu of lethal trapping for numerous studies of animals as varied as squirrels, foxes and golden wolves to Asian elephants and Indian rhinos.
On whether most Vermonters support trapping: This, too, is not true. According to Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s own 2022 survey, 68 percent of Vermonters oppose recreational trapping. UVM’s prestigious Center for Rural Studies showed that 75 percent of Vermonters oppose leghold and body-crushing traps. The company that handles F&W surveys recommended using the term “regulated” to improve the results of one of its survey questions, which is the question it keeps referencing to defend trapping (see internal email). This is deceptive PR, not science.
On trapping for food and fur: To the best of my knowledge, furbearers do not constitute any significant portion of our diet. I am sure there are trappers out there who in their bravado to prove me wrong would ingest anything. Anyone attempting a serious argument, however, that furbearers are trapped for food must be preparing to eat crow.
The fur market has shrunk dramatically, and by my estimate shrunk down to just two key demographics: Self-styled shamans gearing up to storm the Capitol or self-infatuated, uninformed congresspersons dressing to yell and disrespect the presidency.
At least the latter category should give Fish & Wildlife and all proponents of trapping the chance to make one somewhat truthful statement: “Fur Is Greene” has a wee bit of homophonic truth to it, and might just be Fish & Wildlife’’s best argument for trapping.