N.J. muskrat trappers holding on

Trapping for love, not money,' declares one South Jersey old-timer

March 19, 2000|By Vicki McClure | Vicki McClure,Knight Ridder/Tribune

LOWER ALLOWAYS CREEK, N.J. -- The attic of Harry Beal's fur barn stands mostly empty. About 400 muskrat skins hang from thin wooden slats built to hold 3,500.

When he constructed the barn five years ago, he had hopes that New Jersey's flagging trapping industry would bounce back, and he could once again earn a living in a trade passed down to him from his father and grandfather.

The 61-year-old trapper has now resigned himself to making what was once his livelihood into a hobby. And he has watched his friends make similar decisions.

"That's what we are all doing right now -- trapping for love, not money," said Beal, who learned the trade at the age of 5. "I sincerely believed it would turn around and come back, but it did not."

New Jersey has seen the number of registered trappers dwindle from a high of 4,392 in 1978 to 588 in 1998, according to the state's Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Although trappers catch a variety of animals in the Garden State -- raccoon, red fox and more -- muskrat has long been the primary take. And prices for the foot-long rodents have fallen to a mere pittance.

In the 1978-1979 season, the New Jersey pelts fetched an average of $4.91. Last year's season, which runs Dec. 1 to March 15 in South Jersey, saw prices averaging $1.74.

Situation in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania's trappers report a similar decline in number and price, but biologists say the state's pelts usually fetch higher prices. Last season, the Pennsylvania Game Commission estimated there were 5,900 muskrat trappers.

"We have colder weather in general," said Tom Hardisky, a biologist at the Pennsylvania Bureau of Wildlife Management. "The animals have adapted with thicker fur and larger body size."

The fur industry took a big hit in the late '80s and sagged throughout much of the '90s, when a combination of warm winters, a well-organized antifur movement, and recessions in this country and abroad cut demand for the luxury item.

Although the fashion industry has recently embraced fur again and the cold weather has helped inch prices up to around $3, trappers have been unable to take full advantage of the increase. The hot, dry summer last year followed by Hurricane Floyd diminished the muskrat population in South Jersey's marshes, say trappers, so the catch has been low this season.

"The drought dries things up and reduces the habitat for the muskrat," said David Burke, a biologist at the Division of Fish and Wildlife. "When you get a lot of water, it could flood out their lodges."

Animal rights activists said they were encouraged by New Jersey's decline in registered trappers.

"Trapping is inherently cruel and it's time as a society that we move beyond that," said Bill Dollinger, a coordinator at Friends of Animals, an organization that successfully lobbied for the ban on leg-hold traps in New Jersey. "We are thrilled with any decline in the trapping of muskrats or any wildlife."

To the largely rural communities in South Jersey, where many of the muskrat trappers reside, it's a way of life they do not want to see fade.

Each year, muskrat dinners dot the countryside during trapping season, serving up the local delicacy with such items as pepper cabbage and beets to sold-out crowds in makeshift dining halls.

Perhaps no other township cleaves to the muskrat as does Lower Alloways Creek in Salem County. The furry rodent graces the township's flag and fire trucks. It is the mascot for the local high school. And residents affectionately refer to Joe & Sandi's Country Store as the "Muskrat Mall."

When the Lower Alloways Creek Fire & Rescue Company held its annual dinner at the station a month ago, 365 people dined in four separate shifts, eating a total of 1,380 muskrats.

"It's home style," said Diane Baldwin, a waitress from Quinton. Her boyfriend coaxed her to eat the dark meat, which is reminiscent of rabbit.

"I told her there was no way she could grow up in South Jersey and not eat muskrat," said Karl Catherman, a construction inspector from Quinton. "There is still a sense of community here, and this is a big reason for it."

Local residents have been eating muskrat as long as anyone can remember. During tough economic times, trapping muskrat put food on the table and money in people's pockets.

Dione Smith drove half an hour with 30 of his fellow Deptford volunteer firefighters to attend the annual event in Lower Alloways Creek. He fondly remembers "eating rats" at his uncle's cookouts in Woodbury. "Whatever crossed the yard, that's what we would eat," said Smith, 37. "Whatever came into the house, that was dinner."

Compounding the problems for the local muskrat trade are changes in the way South Jersey residents can earn their living.

Since the muskrat season occurs only during the winter months, when the animal's fur is at its fullest, trappers must have other seasonal jobs to support themselves throughout the year.

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