Trappers have always been different. Trappers braved the Great Lakes in bark canoes laden with pelts of otter and wolf, planting outposts that would become great cities. In their quest for beaver, trappers blazed the nation's destiny west across the Rockies.
Centuries later, trappers are still bucking the odds.
At a time when the ranks of other traditional, subsistence-rooted pursuits like hunting and fishing are slumping, trappers are holding their own. In fact, the number of Pennsylvania trappers is growing.
Over the 10 hunting and trapping seasons between 1998 and 2007, sales of Pennsylvania resident adult hunting licenses fell from 811,985 to 651,589 -- a 20 percent loss. But sales of adult fur taker licenses swelled by 20 percent, from 21,483 to 25,827.
The annual Small Game and Furbearer Harvest Survey conducted by the Game Commission reveals more detail in the widening gap between hunter and trapper behavior. Every winter, the commission mails survey forms to one of every 50 hunters and a fifth of fur takers, asking sportsmen to report their hunting and trapping activity.
Based on returned surveys, since 1990 the number of hunters pursuing small game species like rabbits, squirrels, grouse and pheasant dropped by 67 percent, 53 percent, 65 percent and 65 percent respectively.
In the same time period, 10 percent more trappers sought raccoons. The number targeting red foxes grew by 43 percent, mink trapper numbers increased by two-thirds, and coyote hunter-trapper numbers exploded by 450 percent.
"I can see several reasons why fur taker license sales are increasing or at least holding their own," said trapper Joe Pegher of Warrendale. "Fur prices have increased over what they were in the '80s and early '90s. It's not a bull market like it was in the late '70s, but it's doable. If you're doing it right, you can make back your costs or even make some money. It's definitely still viable as an enterprise. Prime raccoon, especially, is now in demand."
A growing overseas market for wild American fur is encouraging to veteran trappers like Pegher and may be drawing others into the market. Buyers bought up every raccoon and beaver pelt offered at the North American Fur Auction (NAFA), held in January in Toronto.
"Excellent demand from China, with very good support from the European markets, particularly Greece, resulted in 100 percent sale at very strong prices," stated a NAFA report.
As Allegheny County leader for the Pennsylvania Trappers Association (PTA), Pegher has a good sense of trapping trends in Western Pennsylvania. His organization has nearly 200 members in Allegheny County alone and 900 in the district comprising Allegheny, Washington, Westmoreland, Greene and Fayette counties.
PTA's Westmoreland County leader John Wilkinson agrees with Pegher's free-market assessment, but also thinks the old romantic lure of trapping is still alive.
"Fur prices have been up in recent years, but there's always a historical link to this," he said. "Some trappers get into it because they just want to catch a beaver, because they know that started the move west. And now you have coyotes like never before. Catching a coyote is a big deal, regardless of price. It's a critter that just attracts a lot of interest."
Bobcats have also boosted fur taking interest according to Wilkinson. Each year the Game Commission awards a limited number of bobcat permits by lottery. In 2007, the commission received 6,049 applications for the 1,010 bobcat permits issued. Applicants must possess a fur taker license to enter the lottery. Permitted trappers and hunters take about 200 bobcats annually in the state.
Pegher observes -- perhaps surprisingly -- that trapping fits well into today's urbanizing landscapes.
"Take beavers," he said. "I live in the North Hills and the response of people to beavers is very interesting. I've had people say the beavers are welcome on their property anytime, and two years later they've come to me and said 'Come and catch all you can,' because their yard is under water and their ornamental trees are cut down. If a good enterprising trapper gets out and talks to people, he can run quite a trap line in our suburban areas. And he's not only having fun outdoors, he's providing a service to people."
Pegher and Wilkinson say they credit the Game Commission for providing more trapping opportunity in recent years, which may help explain its steady participation.
"They've opened up January and February to cable-restraint use, modifying the snare from a killing devise to a holding device," Pegher said. "Guys are taking advantage of that. I know a guy who was up to 40 or 50 foxes and coyotes this winter."
"They're giving you an opportunity to get out earlier, but the fur isn't prime yet," Wilkinson said. "It's lower quality, then but some people do take advantage while others hold off until prime fur time."
Recent mild winters may also be encouraging more trapping activity.
"Milder winters makes it easier to trap," said Pegher. "You keep your sets working without snow cover and raccoons stay active. By the same token, I get more competition when the weather is nice. But there is enough room for more trappers than there are now."
Pegher understands that some people frown upon trapping, considering the practice to be cruel and irrelevant in the modern world.
"[But] when trapping is done correctly it is not cruel or barbaric," he said. "It's like a lot of things humans do. If you follow responsible practices and the regulations, as all trappers should, the animal is not in the trap for a long time. Some people might think it's contradictory, but I have a genuine affection for these animals, born out of familiarity and experience."
Pegher said to be effective, trappers need to know a lot about wildlife -- even more than hunters.
"One thing I've stressed with the kids I've introduced to trapping is that it teaches responsibility," he said. "You're out there by yourself and you have the opportunity to do the right thing or the wrong thing. Generally, nobody is watching you. That lesson is important in everything you do. Trapping also teaches skill and natural history. Even biologists use leghold traps to catch, study and release animals in wildlife research."
Based on his experience with trappers, Matt Lovallo would agree. Lovallo is the Game Commission's furbearer biologist. He studies furbearer populations and recommends trapping seasons and methods to the agency's Board of Commissioners.
Lovallo said trappers are among the most knowledgeable and committed of outdoorsmen.
"We depend a lot on these surveys and trappers are a very cooperative interest group in terms of providing information to the commission," he said. "We get very high return rates from them -- always over 50 percent [62 percent in 2007]."
In comparison, the commission receives mandatory report cards from about 30 percent of successful deer hunters.
"Trapping is still a viable part of the outdoor world and I think it is important," Pegher said. "It would be a sad day if we ever lost these outdoor skills and knowledge that trappers keep alive."