New Hampshire is fortunate to have a group of sportsmen and women who are passionate about wildlife, conservation and their sport like no other group I have known in three decades as a wildlife biologist in the Granite State. They are this state’s trappers. I have been fortunately lucky enough to work with them most of my career at the NH Fish and Game Department. I have been the furbearer biologist since the early 1980’s, but the trapper’s history of helping the department and citizens goes way back before that. Trappers are truly an asset to this state and are frequently overlooked in recognition of contributions they have made, and continue to make, for conservation.
Let’s go back four decades to 1968, when this state’s trappers live captured 25 fisher, which were traded by the NH Fish and Game Department for 25 wild turkeys from West Virginia. This was this state’s first effort at restoring a wild turkey population. Fisher had been wiped out of West Virginia by the mid 1800’s by loss of habitat and unregulated hunting and trapping. West Virginia wanted to restore the balance of nature and return this mystical animal. Fisher were nearly eradicated in New Hampshire as well, but a small remnant population was protected in 1931. By the 1960’s the fisher had returned to this state and were again trapped. Although this state experienced one of the worst record snows that year, which seemed to have doomed the newly transplanted turkeys, fisher have thrived in West Virginia and have even expanded into some of the surrounding states.
Leap forward a couple of decades to the early 1990’s. This time is was Connecticut, which wished to restore a fisher population. Trappers again stepped up to the task of catching live fisher, sending several dozen there over a two-year period. By this time I was in the middle of things, racing around to collect live fisher from trappers, then sending them down to Connecticut in quick order to reduce stress on the animals. Fisher took to liking that state too.
Trappers also were instrumental in catching a few river otters in the mid 1990’s to send to Pennsylvania to help with a restoration already underway there. Here again I was Otter Central. I ended up keeping an otter in the cleaned out grease pit in my garage for several weeks.
By 1996 Pennsylvania was launching their own fisher restoration project and turned to New Hampshire for their supply of live fisher. You see, NH trappers had developed a reputation for catching healthy live fisher. I warned their biologist “Build lots of cages and fisher will come.” But he didn’t listen. He figured maybe two or three dozen fisher could be caught in the month-long NH fisher trapping season.
Suddenly, thanks to our NH trappers I was fisher Central yet again, only this time I was meeting trappers and collecting five or ten a day! I had heaps of fisher at my house. I would spend the day collecting fisher, then the evenings securing them into heavy plastic cylinders with thick doors bolted on each end. I delivered them the next morning to the Manchester Airport by 4:30 am and by noon they were delivered to Penn State. By now I literally had “stacks-of-fisher”. They had NOT built enough cages at Penn State. I ended up borrowing a number of large cages from UNH and had them stacked in my neighbor’s barn full of fisher! My good friend Rick Hamlett had a barn full of fisher for a couple of months. Yes we got fisher in NH. And this went on for two more years, with NH trappers sending 175 fisher in all. This greatly exceeding the expectations of the folks in Pennsylvania, but ensured a successful restoration over a much larger area than had been originally thought possible.
Restoring wildlife populations in several other states is just a small fraction of what trappers have contributed to conservation and to what they continually contribute to communities all across this state. Although trapper numbers have dwindled from nearly a thousand in the 1970’s to less than half of that the last decade, this core group of passionate wildlife conservationists make a difference nearly every day somewhere in this state.
Do you enjoy snowmobiling, cross country skiing, horseback riding or other outdoor activities on this state’s trail system? Thank a NH trapper. Trappers help manage beaver conflicts that would flood or destroy the some of the hundreds of miles of trails maintained by the Trails Bureau. From unclogging culverts to trapping beavers to control populations, trappers are continuously helping to keep the trails open. And not just trails, many town road agents depend on local trappers to keep the roads high and dry too. I have known many trappers who spend many summer and early fall evenings unplugging road culverts, then go in to set beaver traps when the pelts are prime in November. Trappers annually provided hundreds and hundreds of hours to communities and citizens to reduce beaver conflicts.
New Hampshire trappers have always strived to improve their craft and skills. Trapper and trapping techniques are constantly being improved. Yes, you can build a better “mouse trap” or in this case a fox, fisher or beaver trap. Existing equipment is constantly being improved. Traps and trapping have changed significantly since I have been observing. Off-set and laminated jaws have been developed for foot-hold traps in recent years. More swivels have been added to the chains as well as repositioning the chain to reduce injury to an animal in a foot-hold trap. More powerful body gripping traps ensure a quicker and more humane death to a muskrat or mink.
Trapper education is a constant. Each year at the NH Trappers Association Fall Rendezvous trappers are provided numerous workshops to improve their skills. And more trap and trapping improvements are in the works.
New Hampshire trappers have been conducting trap testing for the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to develop Best Management Practices for trapping. This national effort seeks to develop guidelines for trappers to use the most humane, safe and practical trapping methods for over a dozen species in the US. New Hampshire trappers will make a significant impact on how beavers are trapped all across this country.
Trappers are probably one of the most heavily regulated groups. Trappers have self-imposed many restrictions to make sure trapping is the most humane, ethical and safe that it can be. It was the trappers, through the NH Trappers Association, who requested mandatory trapper education BEFORE anyone can trap. Trappers have supported a required land owner written permission before any traps can be set. In fact trappers must file a copy of the trapper permission form with their local conservation officer before any traps can be set. Consequently trapping only takes place where a land owner wants it and under the watchful eyes of the local conservation officer.
And to top it off, all licensed trappers must provide an annual report to Fish and Game (me) listing not only the species by town of what they have trapped, but also the number of traps and the number of nights traps were set for each species. New Hampshire is the envy of most other states and provinces because of the data they provide annually. And they have provided this for decades. Each year over 95 percent of the trappers comply by the April 30th deadline. Trappers are a remarkable lot. (For more information on trapping go to Eric Orff’s web site at www.nhfishandwildlife.com, click on NH furbearer Report.)