As furry animals adapt to cities, so do trappers

Muskrats, beavers, red foxes, raccoons all make homes in N.J.

March 21, 2002|By Matthew Brown | Matthew Brown,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. - Jim DeStephano worked his way down a trash-strewn creek in Lodi, N.J., stopping every few paces to peer into the shallow water.

On one side of the creek was a public housing project. On the other, a packed row of houses.

But to DeStephano, this was prime wild muskrat country. And it was time to check his trap line.

The first few spring-loaded devices were empty. But as DeStephano came under a small bridge, a dead muskrat sagged in the water, a small steel trap clamped around its neck.

`That's nice fur'

DeStephano squeezed open the trap, held up the soggy animal. "It's a good size," he said. "You see that fur? That's nice fur."

Like New Jersey's muskrat, fox, and beaver, the state's trappers have adapted to drastic changes in their habitat in recent decades and continue to cull tens of thousands of animals every winter, when furs are at their prime.

Under state law, trappers can take an unlimited number of most fur-bearing species. Exceptions are beaver, capped at 10 per trapper per season, and otter, capped at one per season.

State officials do not keep population estimates for most fur-bearing animals, and field surveys haven't been done in four years. That leaves trappers largely to police themselves.

So far, the trappers say it has been a good season. After years of depressed prices, pelt values have started to rise again, buoyed by increasing demand in the Far East.

And that bounty can be found literally in the back yards of one of the country's most densely populated states.

New Jersey native Donald Rolfs sets traps in Bergen County most weekends, "in Leonia, Teaneck, Englewood, Bergenfield, down into Hudson County, North Bergen, and Moonachie."

`They're all over'

"I get muskrats, raccoons, skunk, possum, fox, beaver," he said. "They're all over."

Muskrats, short-legged and cat-sized aquatic rodents, are trapped and killed for their dark- brown fur anywhere there's water - from that ditch in Lodi to a small creek beside the Paramus Park mall.

For red fox, raccoons, and skunks, trappers set their wire snares in woodlands and suburbia alike.

Mink, otter, and beaver are trapped along the Passaic and Hackensack rivers and in pocket wetlands and backyard swamps throughout North Jersey.

For more skittish gray foxes and coyotes, trappers head for the wilds of the Highlands.

The dried pelts are sold at country fur auctions, such as one in Sussex, N.J., in January at which boxes overflowed with stiff muskrat pelts and coat hangers hung heavy with plush fox fur.

In the language of these auctions, coyotes become "yotes." "Rats" are muskrats. And "coons," of course, are raccoons.

Auctioneer Tom Mulea sold them all in rapid succession, pausing only to light another in a string of cigarettes. "I've got 74 rats!" he cried. "Seventy-four large rats. Who'll give me three dollars? Three dollars. Three-ten?"

Seventeen years after infamously cruel leg-hold traps were banned by the state Legislature, trappers now use spring-loaded body traps or "kill traps" to drown or break the neck of muskrat, beaver, otter, and mink.

Coyotes, foxes, and raccoons are snared by flexible wire hoops set in the animal's path. The coyotes and foxes are later shot through the head by the returning trapper, and raccoons are bashed on the skull.

"A lot of people don't understand what we do. I can understand that," said DeStephano, whose yard features stacks of traps and a pile of decomposing beaver carcasses - set out to attract hawks that his wife likes to watch. "But New Jersey's got so many animals. It's incredible for the population density of this state."

Several roaming wildlife enforcement officials make spot checks on trappers in the field. But groups such as The Humane Society of the United States say New Jersey's trapping rules are too loose. They contend that snare traps and body traps are as inhumane as the outlawed leg-hold traps and should be prohibited. Trappers say resentment sometimes runs strong.

"I've been yelled at, harassed, and had traps stolen," said DeStephano. "You take a perfectly law-abiding citizen and put a trap in front of them and they can't help but steal them."

Prices provide incentive

The high prices this year give incentive for trappers to try to top last year's statewide take that included 70,900 muskrats, 1,580 red foxes, 460 beavers, and 3,430 raccoons. A large, thick beaver pelt, skinned just right, can bring $30 at auction, while muskrats are sold in batches of 50 for $4 or more per pelt. Earlier in the season and last year, prices for muskrats - the state's most heavily trapped animal - hovered at less than $3 per pelt.

Still, the profit in trapping is more than offset by the cost of traps and the long hours spent in the winter cold, trappers say. There's something else at work for the likes of Rolfs, 44, who has been trapping "since the fourth grade."

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