By Chris Jaworowski, Wildlife Biologist
The trapping of furbearers has been an important part of history since the days of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. These prehistoric people depended on furbearers to provide basic necessities for survival. Food, clothing and shelter were all acquired through the trapping of furbearers. The trapping of furbearers also played a vital role in the colonization of North America by European settlers. Furs provided a means of commerce that propelled and funded many families moving to this new land. In fact, some cities began as centers for trading furs with Native Americans. In today’s fast paced world, the reasons for trapping furbearers have changed; however, furbearers continue to influence the lives of wildlife managers on a daily basis.
Predator control, nuisance animal trapping, preventing the spread of disease, and damage to timber stands and agricultural crops are just a few reasons why trapping plays a vital role in wildlife management. Control of predator populations is very important to wildlife managers. Furbearers like the raccoon, opossum, fox, and coyote can negatively impact some wildlife populations. Ground nesting birds like the wild turkey and bobwhite quail are prime targets for these species. High populations of nest predators can drastically decrease the growth of these populations. Wildlife managers must monitor and control expanding populations of predators in order to successfully manage their target species. By using trapping as a tool to reduce predator populations, wildlife managers can protect and help to build populations of ground and cavity nesting birds.
Nuisance animal trapping of beaver and coyote is an important part of managing for wildlife, timber, and agriculture. The beaver alone causes and estimated $20 million annually in damage to Alabama landowners. Beavers build dams of mud, sticks, and vegetation that cause the flooding of timber stands, agricultural crops, and pastures as well as causing damage to some road systems. The ability of the beaver to construct these dams in a short period of time makes it essential for wildlife managers to monitor beaver populations and their activity. By using trapping as a means of controlling growth in beaver populations, the wildlife manager can reduce annual expenses for heavy equipment, repair to road systems and culverts, as well as preventing costly damage to timber stands, crops, and pastures.
Coyotes are also a nuisance animal that requires monitoring. High populations of coyotes can decrease numbers of ground nesting birds, kill newborn calves, deer fawns, and many other small game species. Coyotes are also a threat to agricultural crops and cause thousands of dollars in damage to crops like watermelons. Controlling coyote populations through trapping allows the wildlife manager to decrease the occurrence of these problems.
In the early 1980s, the value of furs dropped drastically causing a drastic decrease in the number of trappers. As the market values of furs and numbers of trappers decreased, furbearer populations increased significantly. Along with higher populations of furbearers, the spread of wildlife diseases like rabies and distemper also increased. In the early 1970s the raccoon rabies line was found in southeast Alabama; now the rabies line can be found in north central Alabama and it seems to be expanding. By controlling and monitoring populations of furbearers, wildlife managers can reduce the spread of this and many other wildlife diseases.
The role of trapping today has changed since the days of prehistoric hunter-gatherers and European settlers. While these groups utilized furbearers for survival, the wildlife manager today must monitor and control furbearers to reduce damage and maximize the efforts to manage for their target species. Trapping and control efforts are not used to extirpate furbearer populations; instead, they are used to maintain populations at suitable levels within the carrying capacity of the available habitat.
Overall, trapping can be a cost-effective activity that can benefit wildlife populations, decrease damage to timber stands, agricultural crops, pastures and road systems. Controlling furbearer populations at suitable levels can also reduce the spread of wildlife diseases. The role of trapping in wildlife management today can be summarized as a defensive mechanism to prevent damage and spread of disease while properly managing a renewable resource that is a vital part of the history of this nation.