The Pennsylvania Game Commission noted that many of the state's furbearer trapping and hunting seasons are underway and, based on comments from its field officers, hunters and trappers should have a successful year. The general trapping season - for coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, skunks and weasels - opened Oct. 21 and runs through Feb. 17. The season for mink and muskrats is Nov. 17 to Jan. 6; beavers, Dec. 26 to March 31.
Raccoon hunting season began Oct. 20 and closes Feb. 16, and the season for skunks, possums and weasels runs from July 1 to June 30, except for Sundays.
Red and gray foxes hunting season opened Oct. 20 and runs through Feb. 16, including Sundays. Coyotes have a year-round season (July 1-June 30) and can be hunted on Sundays, too.
Pennsylvania also has bobcat hunting and trapping seasons in nine Wildlife Management Units (WMUs 2A, 2C, 2E, 2F, 2G, 3A, 3B, 3C and 3D) for the 1,010 individuals who were selected in the Game Commission's annual bobcat permit drawing. The bobcat hunting season started Oct. 20 and closes to Feb. 16, except for Sundays. The bobcat trapping season opened Oct. 21 and runs through Feb. 17.
Game Commission Executive Director Carl G. Roe pointed out that the Keystone State is lucky to have its furbearer populations managed by trappers, houndsmen and predator callers, who all play an important role of the Commonwealth's wildlife management program.
"Pennsylvania depends on trappers and hunters to manage its furbearer resources," Roe said. "Their annual efforts afield have helped to reduce Pennsylvania's susceptibility to wildlife diseases such as rabies and mange, and its problems with crop- and property-damage caused by furbearers.
"Many Pennsylvanians benefit directly from the services of trappers, hound-hunters and predator-callers, because these specialized sportsmen and sportswomen manage everything from weasels to coyotes. They rescue farmers and other landowners from the damage and costly repairs furbearers can cause almost daily in the fall."
Sagging fur prices spurred a decline in the ranks of fur-takers nationwide in the 1990s. Trappers had difficulty recovering their expenses, and inflation further compounded the problem. The result was a reduction in furbearer harvest and an increase in conflicts. To get a feel for the drop off in harvest that occurred, consider this: In 1996, more than 200,000 raccoons were taken in Pennsylvania; in 2005, the raccoon harvest totaled a little more than 106,000.
Then, last year, the raccoon harvest climbed to 138,640. In fact, furbearer harvests across the board increased; not to pre-1990s levels, but they did swell. Fur-buyers were speculating early that an increase in fur prices was on the horizon and raised pelt prices. It prompted a mild increase in trapper participation for all species.
"The rise in trapper and furbearer hunter participation seems to have been related to increases in fur prices and growing interest in both trapping and predator hunting," Roe said. "Both are positive signs for furbearer management in Pennsylvania, because they stimulate an increased harvest of furbearers, something our state, roadways and residents would surely benefit from.
"In 2005, trappers and furbearer hunters removed about 300,000 surplus furbearers from the Commonwealth's rural and suburban areas and, in the process, and helped to align furbearer populations with the carrying capacity of the habitat they live in. Last year, our furbearer harvest increased about 25 percent. It was a positive step forward, and something we hope continues."
Increased furbearer harvests reduce the damages and encounters that residents - and their pets - will have with these animals on their properties. The effort also ensures motorists will see less carcass fodder along the state's roads.
"Right now, many trappers, and particularly those in southern tier counties, are waiting to set and run their traplines until the pelts on the furbearers they intend to trap become more prime," explained Dr. Matt Lovallo, Game Commission furbearer biologist. "Fur primeness for raccoons, foxes and coyotes usually is about right in most areas of the state by the first week of November. It's always better to start trapping for these furbearers no sooner than early- to mid-November to improve their pelt value on the market.
"Pennsylvania's furbearer populations are doing well and the international market demand for most furs remains relatively strong. Pelt prices can and do fluctuate over the course of a season and from year to year as speculators try to corner markets and unanticipated demands drive prices up for limited pelts. The market is influenced by fashion and the needs of garment-makers internationally."
Most Pennsylvania trappers and furtakers market their pelts through local fur-buyers and regional auctions held by the Pennsylvania Trappers' Association, and international auction houses. Some furtakers also process some of their pelts for personal use.
The average prices paid for Pennsylvania furbearers in 2006 were: raccoon, $12.88 ($17.50 in 2005); red fox, $20.84 ($20.36); gray fox, $43.84 ($26.54); coyote, $20.02 ($24.50); muskrat, $3.20 ($6.10); mink, $12.88 (17.42); skunk, $4.04 ($4.50); opossum, $2.45 ($5.05); and beaver, $22.14 ($17.18).
In 2006, Pennsylvania sold 26,589 furtaker licenses, up slightly from 23,941 in 2005. The Game Commission began selling combination licenses (which provides general hunting, archery and muzzleloader stamp, as well as furtaking privileges) to junior resident and nonresidents and senior residents in 1999. This new category has led to a dramatic decline in the number of furtaker licenses that are sold, but not necessarily the number of participants.
A soft fur market in the 1990s did reduce furtaker numbers in the state. However, with recent increases in fur prices, Pennsylvania has seen a corresponding increase in furtaker license sales. Increasing interest in predator calling, the bobcat seasons and growing coyote populations, along with new opportunities, such as the legalization of cable restraints for foxes and coyotes, also have encouraged more hunters and trappers to take another look at furtaking seasons.
The 2005 Game-Take Survey reports that fur-takers took 138,640 raccoons (106,082 in 2005); 121,161 muskrats (70,995); 48,102 opossums (43,720); 45,512 red foxes (40,551); 21,601 coyotes (20,377); 20,754 gray foxes (17,616); 10,687 skunks (9,977); and 12,680 mink (9,335).
The Game-Take Survey also showed that Pennsylvania's best raccoon harvests came from WMUs 2C and 1A; red fox, WMUs 5B and 5C; gray fox, WMUs 2C and 4A; coyote, WMUs 2C and 2G; muskrat, WMUs, 1A and 1B; mink, WMUs 5A and 1B; skunk, 5B and 2C; opossum, WMUs 2C and 2F; and beaver, WMUs 1A and 1B.
"Our furbearer harvests for many species have remained relatively stable over the past three years, but considerable jumps have occurred in muskrats, raccoons and mink harvests," Lovallo said. "Mink are thriving and appear to be expanding their populations in the southeast and central regions of the state. Increasing prices for raccoon and muskrat pelts likely have led to their increased harvests."
Most furbearers - excepting muskrats - in Pennsylvania and other neighboring states remain underutilized. In fact, hunters and trappers are taking a fraction of the renewable fur resource Pennsylvania historically has provided. It's a trend that likely will not be reversed because of the difficulties associated land access, increased equipment and transportation costs, and the free-time/commitment complexities that often dominate the lives of many Pennsylvanians.
"There's plenty of room for more trappers in Pennsylvania, and our residents would surely benefit from increased pressure on furbearers," Lovallo explained. "Trappers really do make a difference. Additionally, they're utilizing a renewable resource that would be a real challenge to manage without their help."
Over the past 30 years, beavers and coyotes have been expanding their range, primarily from northern counties south. Left unchecked, beavers would cause tremendous property damage and could adversely affect the quality of drinking water for municipalities. Coyotes would cause even more problems for livestock and pets.
"Trappers have done an admirable job managing Pennsylvania's beavers and coyotes," Lovallo noted. "They are our first line of defense in managing these species locally and they do it for free. Anyone who has suffered from the damages these species can inflict knows what a relief it is to have a trapper remedy the situation."
Beaver trappers are reminded that they no longer are required to have harvested beavers tagged by Game Commission personnel. There are, however, beaver bag limits for each Wildlife Management Unit.
Licensed trappers may use cable restraints for coyotes and foxes, upon completion of a four-hour certification course provided by agency-certified instructors, from Jan. 1-Feb. 17. The cost of the course is $15. Students receive various educational materials and one legal cable restraint, and a permanent certification card will be mailed following completion of the course.
Trapping is a highly regulated activity in Pennsylvania. A furtaker license - or combination license - is required to trap in the Commonwealth. All traps must have an identification tag that provides the trapper's name and address or a number issued by the agency. Body-gripping traps must be set within a watercourse. It is unlawful to set a trap with bait visible from the air, or to disturb the traps of another. Traps cannot have a jaw-spread exceeding 6.5 inches. Traps must be visited at least once every 36 hours and each animal removed.
Facts from the Pennsylvania Game Commission: Did you know that coyotes can be hunted by individuals in possession of either a general hunting or furtaker license? To trap coyotes, an individual is required to hold a furtaker license.