Cold winter bringing more waterfowl, higher fur prices

Although rabbits aren't trapped in Delaware for their furs, this photograph from the early 1900s shows them to be a popular quarry for hunters. SOURCE DELAWARE PUBLIC ARCHIVES/PURNELL COLLECTION
January 31, 2014

Snow geese fly high, winging overhead in great flocks, talking ceaselessly, forever reminding us of our winter season. When they decide to land, the snows, with their white bodies and black wing tips, circle and funnel with their landing gear spread and touch down close to one another so they can continue their conversations.

If it seems like there are more snow geese around this year, along with ducks and tuxedoed Canada geese, there’s a good reason. According to Delaware waterfowl biologist Matt DiBona, we’re in the middle of a very good year for waterfowl. “We’re head and shoulders over last year in terms of the number of birds around,” he said this week.

When he flew his annual midwinter count in early January, DiBona estimates he saw about 30,000 to 40,000 ducks in the state’s marshes, creeks and rivers. He also saw about 40,000 Canada geese and well over 100,000 snow geese. “At Tuesday night’s waterfowl advisory committee meeting, Ed Montague said he hasn’t seen this many Canada geese in Sussex County for many years,” said DiBona. “He said the same goes for snow geese.”

What a difference a year makes. DiBona said last year’s numbers were below average. “We had a mild winter last year, and it could be that the birds shortstopped in Pennylvania and New York because they didn’t need to come farther south. This year of course is much colder.”

He said the birds may also be more visible this year because with the impoundments at Bombay Hook and Prime Hook national wildlife refuges frozen over, the ducks have shifted their use into the rivers and ditches, and the geese have moved inland from the bayshore to fields where they are feeding and roosting.

Cold and fur prices

The cold may also have something to do with why fur prices are up this year.

Joe Rogerson, a state biologist who specializes in fur-bearing animals, said most of the furs from Delaware trappers are sold internationally. “Right now there’s heavy demand from other countries. It’s simple economics. When demand goes up, so go the prices.”

Delaware’s trapping season runs from Dec. 1 through March 10 each year. Furs are healthiest and thickest in the winter, particularly in a cold winter like this one. Fox furs are bringing up to $40 each while muskrat pelts are bringing up to $8 and $12 depending on their size and quality. Black muskrat furs, more rare than more common brown furs, bring a few dollars more. In Delaware, an estimated 300 or so licensed trappers use leg-hold and body-gripping traps, as well as a kind of cable snare, to catch foxes, coyotes, raccoons, muskrats, beavers, otters and a few minks for the fur market. “There are fewer than 10 minks caught each year. Many years none,” said Rogerson.

He said this is the first year in a long time Delaware has a season for the trapping of foxes by the public. “We’ve aligned that season with the seasons for the other fur-bearing animals.” He said four to five years of statistics show the fox population to be strong and healthy enough to sustain trapping. Coyote trapping is also new this year. Rogerson said trappers are required to report any coyotes caught. So far, he said, none has been reported.

Rogerson also maintains state deer hunting and population statistics. He said with a few more days of muzzle-loading season left, the total harvest in the 2013-14 season is already ahead of last year when a total of 13,302 white-tail deer were taken by hunters. He said 13,500 is a typical number in an average year. “I don’t expect us to hit 14,000 this year, but the number will be greater than last year.”

So what happens to all the deer hides? Rogerson said most of them are collected for sale overseas to the Chinese. “The man who collects them from the butcher shops that process deer pays about $4 each. All of the processors participate. Getting $4 for them beats paying to put them in a landfill.”

Rogerson said the Chinese tan the hides, make them into deerskin gloves, and then send them back for sale in the U.S. I had a roommate in college named Rocky Stanyon. His family was in the tanning business before that industry moved overseas. They lived in a New York town called Gloversville. Any guesses what most of their tanned hides went into?

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