Delaware muskrat trapping persists despite pressures

Grace Dunninng, of Smyrna, was taught by her father Richard how to trap muskrats. Her siblings Bella and Richie are also trappers thanks to their dad. “This gets them out into nature and it opens their eyes to a lot of different experiences most of the other kids in school have never had,” Mr. Dunning said. (Submitted photo)

SMYRNA — Delaware muskrat enthusiasts will agree that the tradition of trapping, skinning and eating the aquatic rodent isn’t what it used to be. But, there is a passionate contingent of outdoors men and women dedicated to keeping the historic custom alive.

A weakening market for pelts, lessening interest among younger generations and a public perception of animal cruelty have reduced the popularity of muskrat trapping over the past two decades, say trappers. Still, dozens of devotees, young and old, still participated in the 2017-2018 trapping season that ran from December to March. Also, Delaware Trappers Inc. — an association formed four years ago — continues to hold monthly meetings.

The soon-to-be president of the association and Smyrna resident, Richard Dunning, has been trapping since he was about 13 years old.

“Muskrat trapping in Delaware is still huge, but a lot of us are hobbyists now,” he said. “I’ll usually catch around 100 myself during the season, but I know of a guy who runs a larger commercial operation that caught about 1,700 this year.”

For Mr. Dunning, passing the tradition on to his children — Grace, Bella and Richie — was important.

“I’ve taken my kids out deer hunting since they were very little. Richie killed his first deer when he was 5,” he said. “They’ve really enjoyed trapping as well. It’s not easy. It’s a workout in the marshes because if you stand still, you’ll be up to your waist in mud. These are important skills too, but this gets them out into nature and it opens their eyes to a lot of different experiences most of the other kids in school have never had.”

In Townsend trapper Whitey Foster’s youth, it was strange if a school-aged Delaware kid wasn’t trapping.

“Growing up near the Delaware River, every kid in town had half a dozen muskrat traps — it was something you did for fun and some extra money,” he said.

“Back when I was 12, you could make 50 cents per rat.”

The 75-year-old is also a member of Delaware Trappers Inc. He said this season was the first he’s missed in many years because of a knee operation in October. He still used his time to support the activity though. He helped run a display booth at the Townsend Sportsman’s Club last month and he often gives demonstrations to local groups.

“Recently we visited with a 4-H group in Middletown,” he said. “The kids seemed really interested and some even started showing up at association meetings later on.”

Mr. Foster claims the historical significance of trapping to both the state and country can’t be understated.

“Delaware has been and still is probably one of the best muskrat trapping states in the country,” he said. “From the farthest northern parts to the beaches, most of the state is marshland, which is the ideal territory. It’s been going on for hundreds of years. In fact, a lot of this country was built on the fur trade. Most of the expeditions went west in our early history looking for places to trap.”

Downward pressures

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to muskrat trapping’s popularity is the fur market. Once robust, it’s suffered from a downward trend in recent years.

Richard Dunning holds up a trap used to catch muskrats. He says he usually nets about 100 per season, which just wrapped up last month in Delaware. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“I know it sounds a little hillbilly, but back in the 80s, if you saw a dead raccoon on the side of the road, you’d stop and pick it up,” said Mr. Dunning. “You could take it to a fur buyer ‘in the round’ (unprocessed) and make $30. That was decent money. Muskrat furs were much more valuable back then too.”

Much like any market, it’s subject to volatility. The recent sag is likely due to the fashion of fur coats becoming less popular in the country, the trappers say. Mr. Foster said there was once a time when the majority of muskrat furs were shipped directly to New York.

“Fashions have changed. A long time ago, practically every woman had at least one nice fur coat in their closet,” he said. “A lot of the muskrat coats were sold as mink, which are a lot more expensive, because you can hardly tell the difference between the two.”

Before retiring, Mr. Foster was a bricklayer. When prices were high, he could often make more money trapping over the winter than he could otherwise.

“In the boom days back in the 70s and 80s I’d trap all winter,” he said. “Muskrats were selling for $8 to $9 and I’d catch almost 40 per day. It helped pay the bills.”

Fur protests by anti-animal cruelty groups help push fur coats out of favor, Mr. Foster says, but there’s still a fairly robust foreign market.

“A lot of our furs now get sold to Zander Fur over in New Jersey and they export a lot of it to China, Russia and Korea,” he said.

The Zander family began its fur wholesaling business in the 1930s and have grown into one of the largest suppliers of North American “wild fur.”

In 2016, John Zander told the Delaware State News that muskrats are still the biggest-selling item on the East Coast and the company handles 200,000 to 300,000 in a typical year. He also noted that prices were continuing downward at the time, averaging $3 to $3.50 for a “dry muskrat.”

The meat appears to have always had a market, the trappers say. But, the price has remained fairly stable. Mr. Dunning says he’s sold meat for $1 to 1.50 per muskrat for as long as he can remember.

“I never have a problem selling mine, and even my friend who caught 1,700 sold them without an issue,” he said. “They’re usually sold to certain restaurants, local wild game dinners or to individuals. They’re an acquired taste, but I like them. If I catch 100 in a season, I’ll probably end up eating 10 myself.”

Habitat degradation is another pressure, Mr. Foster claims. Between large subdivisions being built and marshes being sprayed for phragmites — a large perennial grass — muskrats are finding fewer places to settle.

“The spray seems to end up killing a lot on the marsh. Once that happens, the rats move on and don’t come back,” he said.

Even natural predators seem to be more competitive over the rodents.

“There are a lot more birds of prey around now. Eagles and hawks eat a lot of muskrats,” Mr. Foster said. “The foxes have also adapted to living on all types of marshes too and they slaughter the muskrats by the dozen.”

Among younger generations, a combination of the anti-cruelty movement and a general lack of interest pulls kids from the marshes, Mr. Foster speculates.

“A lot of kids would rather sit at home and play videos games,” he said.

“Plus a lot of them are taught that hunting is cruel or inhumane. Honestly though, trapping helps control the animal populations. You ought to see what nature does to an animal if it avoids predators too long or there is overpopulation. A manged up fox is one of the most pitiful and terrible things I’ve seen. They’re hairless, their eyes are pinched shut and they’re suffering a slow and painful death. Hunting actually helps keep animal populations strong and healthy. I know it’s hard for some to believe, but hunters and trappers really love animals and nature.”

Mr. Dunning notes that licensing fees, equipment purchases and leasing state land are large sources of the economic activity that helps protect the state’s wildlife areas. From personal experience, he hasn’t experienced push back from anti-cruelty activism.

Bella Dunning, of Smyrna, isn’t afraid to get dirty to trap a muskrat. One of the reasons the activity has become less common is the lack of young people involved in the pursuit. (Submitted photo)

“The worst we’ve heard personally is people joking ‘you don’t really eat those things do you?’” he said with a laugh.

In the past, several attempts to ban muskrat trapping were defeated by state legislators. According to a 1988 New York Times article, muskrat trapping was a “polarizing issue” at the time.

Animal advocates were seeking a ban of both “leg-horn” and “conibear” traps, claiming they were inhumane. They argued that snares, which catch but usually don’t kill muskrats, were a better option.

Firing back, trappers, farmers and wildlife managers said maiming and leaving the animal in pain until they could be retrieved was far worse than a quick death.

At the time, passions were heated because the muskrat trade was said to be a significant industry. The Times article claimed it added “a million dollars per year to the state economy” and that “during the three-month hunting season 400 to 700 trappers harvested 40,000 to 140,000 muskrats” annually.

Ultimately the proposed bans were shot down.

Owning a wide collection of traps, Mr. Dunning claims the vast majority of muskrats are still killed with a conibear 110 trap baited with a piece of fruit or vegetable.

However, there have been a few policy changes over the years, he added.

“We’ve seen some new regulations, but most are in our favor of trappers,” he said. “One includes offset jaws for certain foot-hold traps that don’t kill. You’d use these mostly for foxes, but on the off chance you catch a feral cat or something else you didn’t intend to, you could release it and it wouldn’t be maimed. There were also guards added to snares that would allow a deer to escape if you accidentally caught one.”

Interested in trapping?

It’s a fairly inexpensive hobby to get into, says Mr. Dunning.

“You have to go through the mandatory trapper’s education course offered by DNREC and get a trapper’s license,” he said. “Then all you need is a couple traps, some poles and a good pair of hip boots. A dozen traps will run you somewhere around $45.”

DNREC’s trapper education course, which Mr. Dunning helps teach, is offered once per year in late November.

“Some years we’ll have 20 or 30 people. Last year we had 15,” he said. “But the cool thing is the ages range from 10 to 50, and it’s men and women alike.”

The class and field work sessions include trapping history, heritage and ethics, information on the furbearing animals of Delaware, trapping equipment, boating safety, hypothermia, practical water sets, hands-on instruction, how tides affect sets, proper skinning techniques and fur handling and how to market them.

For more information on the course, visit dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/HunterEd/Pages/Courses.aspx

Because residents aren’t free to trap on state land, finding territory can sometimes be a challenge, says Mr. Dunning. State land is available, but trappers must lease it through an annual bidding process. This can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars per season. However, Mr. Dunning said many trappers end up working with local farmers or other landowners who allow them use their land.

“Muskrats often end up living in retention ponds in subdivisions too,” he said. “I get calls from HOAs sometimes asking me to come clear them out. I know a few kids that recently completed the course who are having a great time just trapping right in their neighborhood.”

Members of Delaware Trappers Inc. encourage anyone interested in learning more to visit one of their association meetings. They meet the first Tuesday of every month, except June through August, at the Townsend Sportsman’s Club. For more information, email Delawaretrappersinc@gmail.com.

Despite the pressures facing the muskrat trapping tradition, Mr. Foster feels a small, dedicated group will always find some way to keep it alive.

“I don’t think it’ll ever go away completely. Someone will always be out there trapping,” he said. “I missed this season because of my knee surgery, and I have a wrist operation in April, but I’m going to be back out there in December. I might be a bionic man by the end of all these operations, but I bet I’ve got another 100,000 miles on me.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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