40 Years of Raccoon Trapping in Illinois
What comes to mind when you hear about “fur trapping?” For many people, fur trapping conjures up images from days gone by or perhaps of luxury coats and raccoon-tailed hats. However, fur trappers provide wildlife biologists with valuable information on furbearer populations. In fact, trapper harvest records are quite important. Harvest records often go back for decades (even centuries!) and cover large regions. The information obtained from trapper harvest records allow biologists to address management and conservation issues associated with furbearer populations. For example, what are long-term trends in muskrat populations? Or, how do wolf populations influence coyotes and foxes? Understanding the effort and harvest numbers from fur trappers helps biologists ultimately determine the number of animals in a particular furbearer population.
To understand the factors influencing furbearer harvests in Illinois, 43 years of raccoon trapper harvest records were gathered from the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Illinois Trapper Survey. We learned that raccoons are the most widely harvested furbearing species in Illinois. Each year an average of 85,000 raccoons are harvested. While the number of harvested raccoons has fluctuated over the past 40 years, there is no clear trend in the number of animals taken. In contrast, there has been a dramatic change in trapper effort. The annual number of raccoon trappers has declined markedly from a high of about 15,000 trappers in the late 1970s and early 1980s to less than 5,000 trappers in the early 1990s. The changes seen in Illinois mirror those throughout North America as older trappers retire but are not replaced in the next generation.
Why has there had been such precipitous decline in trapper effort over the years? Declining pelt prices is one important consideration. Similar to the decline in number of trappers, a drastic decline in pelt prices has occurred. In the late 1970s a raccoon pelt could fetch more than $75 (adjusted to 2018 prices), yet that same pelt sold for only $25 by 1990. Today that pelt is worth a little more than $4. The decline in pelt price may have driven some trappers out of the business.
Prior to 1990, pelt prices more-or-less dictated trapper effort. If prices went down, so did the number of trappers. If prices went up, so did the number of trappers. However, after 1990, changes in trapper effort were no longer linked with pelt price. As other studies have shown, contemporary trappers may be less motivated by economic gain and view trapping primarily as a means of enjoying nature and the outdoors. Some trappers also remain active and help friends and neighbors mitigate conflict in areas where property damage is occurring. Many trappers who used to trap primarily for the fur have turned more towards removing nuisance wildlife.
Why have raccoon harvest numbers not declined given the sharp decline in trapper effort? We looked at average annual harvest of raccoons per successful trapper (trappers that harvested least one raccoon that year) and found that prior to 1990 a successful raccoon trapper in Illinois typically harvested fewer than 15 raccoons per year. By the late 1990s, this number had reached as high as 45. There are a few reasonable explanations for this increase. Based on other studies, raccoon populations have likely increased in the past several decades. Secondly, fewer trappers means less competition between trappers, thus one trapper can harvest more raccoons. Finally, contemporary trappers seem to be more dedicated to their trade, which may give them an advantage of skill and experience.
Our study is just one example of how information from fur trappers can help wildlife biologists better understand and manage furbearer populations. Learning about the trends in fur trapper effort and harvest numbers are an important aspect of wildlife management.
Javan Bauder worked as a postdoctoral research associate with the Illinois Natural History Survey. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying eastern indigo snakes but enjoys working with a variety of wildlife species. Bauder is currently an Assistant Unit Leader with the Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in Tucson.
Kirk Stodola is an Assistant Population Ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia and currently works on applied conservation and management issues with a variety of taxa in the state of Illinois.
Thomas J. Benson is a Senior Wildlife Ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey and Research Associate Professor with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Craig A. Miller is Leader of the Human Dimensions Research Program for the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois, a position he has held for close to 20 years. His principle research focus is human dimensions of wildlife (especially hunters). He also serves as director of the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Learn to Hunt program.
Max Allen is a mammal ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey. He received his Ph.D. from Victoria University and studies carnivore ecology.