Bryant White is the Furbearer Research Program Manager with the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (AFWA). He is based at the Missouri Department of Conservation Research Centre. AFWA brings together the state and federal wildlife agencies, as well as non-governmental and private conservation groups. With some 60 committees and working groups, AFWA provides a forum for coordinating government and private conservation efforts across the USA.
TruthAboutFur: How did you become a wildlife biologist?
Bryant White: I had always wanted to be a wildlife biologist. I always loved the outdoors and hunting and fishing. I felt that being a professional care-taker of wildlife would be something important and worthwhile for me to do in my career.
TaF: What sort of work do you do with the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies?
BW: Much of my work is related to coordinating projects with the state and federal wildlife agencies, especially research related to Best Management Practices (BMP) for the conservation of furbearing animals. I coordinate research in the field, the delivery of samples to the lab, the analysis and publication of data, and the development of BMPs for different species, including international liaison and trapper education.
TaF: What are Best Management Practices (BMPs) for furbearers?
BW: Because furbearer management and trapping are mostly state responsibilities in the USA, the BMPs help us to coordinate conservation efforts across the country. We have been developing BMPs since the late 1990s and they now define trapping methods for 23 furbearing species. The BMPs are based on five main criteria: animal-welfare, selectivity, efficiency, human safety, and practicality. The animal-welfare aspect of traps is tested against the norms set out in ISO documents 10990-5 and 10990-4, which is the basis of the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards. We also conduct studies where our technicians go into the field to collect information about how traps function in different physical environments. Biological samples are sent to our labs for necropsy. With all this information we are able to recommend the most effective and humane trapping systems for each of the 23 furbearing species. The state and federal wildlife management authorities use this information in trapper-training programs.
TaF: Which species are most commonly trapped? Are they endangered?
BW: The top five species trapped in the USA (accounting for 79% of the total) are muskrat, raccoon, coyote, beaver and fox. These are all highly abundant species, and we take only a small part of these populations each year. Thanks to excellent regulations, trapping in North America today is definitely sustainable.
TaF: How is trapping regulated to ensure that it is done humanely and sustainably?
BW: Everything is based on research. State wildlife biologists analyse the harvesting statistics each year and use various tools (e.g., age and sex of the animals taken, biological samples collected from trappers) to estimate the population size of each species in each region and determine whether those populations are increasing or decreasing. Then, taking account of the intensity of trapping (from trapping permits issued) they are able to adjust the start dates and duration of hunting and trapping seasons to ensure that harvesting is done sustainably. Trapping seasons will be opened only when the young of the year are autonomous and have set out to establish territories of their own. When necessary, harvest quotas protect vulnerable species. Types of trapping devices and how they may be used are also regulated, to ensure animal welfare as well as the safety of pets and the public. For example: traps usually must be set a certain distance away from roadways or houses. Although all these regulations are important, trappers also self-regulate; they have no interest in depleting the resource they depend upon.
TaF: How have trapping methods changed?
BW: Traps today are very different and much more humane than they were in the past. Thanks to USDA research, live capture (foothold) traps now have modifications such as padded and off-set jaws (so they do not close completely) and other features that minimize injuries. Cable restraint devices (i.e., live-holding snares) protect livestock or dogs (which can be released safely) when traps have to be used where domestic animals are present. Live-holding traps generally have to be checked every twenty-four hours. Lethal traps now kill targeted animals very quickly and training courses teach trappers how to use them in a very selective way: e.g., marten traps set in a special box on a tree branch will not be accessible to dogs or other non-target species. Proper choice of baits or lures, or the location and way in which traps are set will also ensure that only the target species is taken.
TaF: Do we still need trapping; is it only for fur?
BW: Trapping would be important even if no one wanted fur; regulated trapping is now an essential element of responsible wildlife management in the USA. Many people don’t know that modern traps are used to capture animals, unharmed, to apply radio collars for research -- or to reintroduce species (wolves and river otters) into regions where they were previously eradicated. Trapping is also essential to protect some thirty endangered species of plants and animals. Whooping cranes, for example, would almost certainly be completely extinct in the USA within two years if we didn’t aggressively trap predators like coyotes and foxes in their nesting areas. Endangered sea turtles are also protected by trapping raccoons and foxes that seek to dig up their eggs. Wolves must be managed to protect livestock, while beavers can cause millions of dollars of damage to forest habitat, water supplies, agricultural land, roads and other property by flooding. Skunks and raccoons in cities carry lethal diseases (rabies) and dangerous parasites, such as roundworm, which can migrate out of the intestines and can affect many organs and tissues, including the brain. They can be lethal.
TaF: What do you say to people who claim that “we don’t need trapping, because nature will take care of itself...”
BW: I can understand why some people might think that, especially if they are not aware of how profoundly we have transformed and encroached on the landscape across this country. This is no longer a “natural” environment and we cannot dodge our responsibilities to restore some sort of balance to a system that has been radically disrupted. Biologists often talk about the “carrying capacity” of a natural habitat. But today we also have to think about the “societal carrying capacity” – in other words, how many animals and what types of animals are we ready to tolerate in close proximity? Coyotes and foxes are snatching pet dogs and cats from people’s backyards in many towns and cities. Moose and deer are colliding with cars, causing serious injuries. I have already mentioned damage to habitat and property from beaver flooding, and the diseases and parasites that raccoons and other species carry. Bottom line: we co-exist in close proximity with wildlife in much of our country and we must maintain some sort of balance. In this context, trapping is an essential conservation tool to help maintain stable and healthy wildlife populations in a responsible way.
TaF: As a biologist, do you consider it ethical to trap wild animals for food, clothing and other purposes?
BW: Yes I do, especially because we use domestic animals for exactly the same purposes. Harvesting meat and fur from the wild is just as ethical as buying leather shoes or a steak dinner or a can of chicken soup. What is important is that we hunt and trap in a responsible and sustainable fashion. Some people question the ethics of trapping animals for fur, but the fur trade actually helps us to protect furbearing species by giving them economic value. It’s all very good to say we care about wildlife, but when the tough decisions get made, economic value does matter. When someone comes to cut down the forest to build a new shopping mall, we can say, whoa, this forest does help the economy, it provides local income and resources from hunters and fishers and trappers – let’s leave it alone. Not least important, it’s hunters, fishers and trappers who pay for the state agencies that monitor, manage and protect wildlife populations and their habitat. They pay with their hunting, fishing and trapping licenses. Without these revenues there would be no funding for the wildlife agencies that manage most of the wildlife in this county!
TaF: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about trapping?
BW: When a trapper goes out on the land, they may be thinking of the fur or income they hope to bring back, but from our perspective, as biologists and wildlife agencies, they are managing wildlife and doing essential conservation work. We need these people and we should respect what they do. We have done opinion research and 80 per cent of Americans say that it is OK to trap to protect habitat, it’s OK to trap to protect endangered species, it’s OK to manage wildlife to control disease or protect property. We need to do a better job informing people of the important contributions that trappers make to our conservation efforts.