It’s the biggest fear outside of the industry.

How do we really know what trappers are doing?

How do we know they aren’t careless and irresponsible? Doing more harm than good? With no concern for the welfare of animals entrusted to them?

You can’t possibly keep tabs on every trapper all of the time. They’re all alone. In the middle of nowhere. Scattered across a huge area.

Some want to see trapping banned. They fear what happens when no one is looking.

Yet the system governing trappers is much more effective than they realize, because it’s set up to reduce the need for constant monitoring while giving trappers their own reasons to do the right things.

Let’s take a look at the system to see how it works .. and why it works.

The ‘Highly Regulated’ Trapping Industry

A common phrase in trapping circles – highly regulated. But what does it even mean?

Wildlife management in Ontario is governed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF). And trapping is one of the tools used to manage wildlife.

However, trappers don’t work for the MNRF. They generate income by selling the fur they trap. This saves our government from having to pay them thousands each year.

This is what people don’t fully understand.

Fur is a by-product of wildlife management.

Today’s trappers aren’t out on their own, doing what they please. This isn’t a sport.

Trappers are one part of Ontario’s wildlife management team. They’re accountable to the MNRF for every animal they harvest. But… they often work in remote locations.

So this calls for a clear understanding of what’s acceptable and what’s not.

With so many possibilities for problems, the regulations need to address everything… right down to the fine details. The laws cover:

  • animal welfare
  • mandatory licensing
  • season length for each species
  • beaver quotas
  • harvest limits
  • trapping location
  • trapper education and safety
  • types of traps
  • required paperwork

There are even laws to help protect the general public and their pets.

As well, the Ministry has strict checks and balances to further discourage illegal activity.

So yes, trapping is highly regulated. All in an effort to keep trapping ethical and sustainable.

Now then, the question becomes… is it possible to enforce all of these rules?

Enforcing the Law

Conservation Officers (COs)

These are law enforcement officers from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF). They ‘protect our natural resources an ensure public safety’. They’re supported by numerous wildlife forensics laboratories and other provincial, national and international agencies.

COs patrol large areas and perform a wide range of duties.

While they can’t monitor every trapper, all the time, it doesn’t mean they’re not effective.

Far from it.

ATVs and snow machines cover a lot of ground and COs know the location of ALL the traplines.

With limited paths through the heavy bush, it’s easy to spot when a trail’s been used. Especially with snow on the ground.

In reality, a trapper can be out in the middle of nowhere and a CO appears. The trapper’s licence must show that they’re legally allowed to trap on that land.

COs have expanded search powers as well. If they suspect something’s not right, they can search the trapper’s property without a warrant.

And they aren’t limited to random inspections either….

Fur Management Information System (FURMIS)

COs also monitor trappers through FURMIS. (The system that tracks harvest reports and fur sales receipts).

Let’s say a CO spots a trapper selling fur at a farmer’s market. It’s easy to search five years worth of records then compare to the trappers own documents. If the numbers don’t add up, they’ll investigate further.

The COs are like police officers who set up speed traps. While they may not catch every speeder, the threat of the consequences keeps most people in line. And it’s not just COs trappers have to watch for…

Citizen Police

Who goes anywhere without a phone these days? People out in nature love to capture its beauty. What happens if they come across a trapline and something looks off?

Fur sure, they’ll snap a pic. Then post it on social media as soon as possible.

Then, it isn’t just a ‘he-said – she-said’ kind of deal, where you don’t know who’s telling the truth. People take lots of pictures as evidence.

In the past, a person couldn’t make a report until they got back to town. Then who knows how long before a CO could get out to investigate the trapline. Plenty of time for the trapper to clean up their mess.

Now, you can call a tip-line right on the spot.

One careless act taints the whole industry. So the idea of citizen police gives the trapper another reason to think twice: To do the right thing and keep their business in order.

Besides, their fellow trappers won’t likely defend them either…

The Trapping Community

This group governs their own too.

Trappers connect through their shared activity. Perhaps forming closer bonds because of society’s negative view of their work. (Even though trapping contributes to healthy wildlife).

But still, trappers aren’t afraid to speak out when they think something isn’t right. Just like a motorist who calls in to report a bad driver on the highway.

Unsafe and illegal activities cause harm. And not just to you.

Saying you didn’t know the law isn’t good enough. If you have a licence, you should know.

The poor behaviour of one trapper affects the integrity of all trappers. So the community isn’t interested in covering for them. They’ve invested a lot into trapping as you’re about to find out…

The Consequences

For the serious trapper, getting their own trapline is a huge personal achievement. When they sign an agreement with the MNRF, they’re responsible for managing the line. A trapper can easily invest 100k on equipment, vehicles, a shed and often a cabin. This doesn’t include gas, maintenance or upgrades.

With the low value of fur, it takes a long time to recoup their costs. Yet a trapper could lose it all for breaking the law.

The severity of the penalty matches the offence. From warnings to heavy fines to losing their licence, trappers get flagged and monitored from the very first offence.

Serious or multiple offences can lead to the ultimate penalty: The MNRF takes back control of the trapline AND all of the equipment on it.

The trapper can’t even sell the cabin. It’s forfeited to the crown.

A high price to pay. But its not the only reason the MNRF seizes a trapline. Failing to trap is a serious offence.

Trapping plays a critical role in balancing wildlife populations. Not trapping threatens the survival of our already endangered species.

The MNRF expects trappers to fulfill their obligations. Follow their management plans to keep wildlife populations under control. This protects the ecosystem. Which in turn, gives all the species a chance to thrive.

Failing to trap is a violation of their contract. And trappers have lost their trapline because of it.

So far we’ve covered a number of ‘incentives’ to keep trappers in line. But those are outside influences.

Now let’s look at trappers’ own reasons for doing the right things.

How Trappers Regulate Themselves

The Entrepreneur Mindset

Trappers only get paid when the fur is sold at auction. This gives them a different mindset than someone who’s paid by the hour.

In this way, trappers are like farmers. To get a good return on their investment, they need quality “livestock”. The higher the quality, the better the return.

With all a trapper invests into their trapline, it’s tough enough to recoup their costs. Especially when fur prices are low. Even beginner trappers can drop a good $5000 before setting their first trap. So it’s in their best interest to produce the highest quality of fur.

This means managing the furbearers right.. right from the start.

Which in turn makes animal welfare a top priority.

1) Over-Trapping Defeats the Purpose

The MNRF sets their trapping limits based on the ‘carrying capacity’ (the number of healthy wildlife the habitat can support).

Populations kept near the carrying capacity mean there’s enough food for all. There’s less risk of disease and a better chance of healthy offspring each year. Over-trapping doesn’t make sense.

First, it’s illegal. The trapper has to face the consequences if they get caught.

Second, it depletes their stock. Sure, they’ll get more pelts to sell one year, but then what? It may take two or three years before the population recovers. It means less income for those years.

Not a wise business decision.

2) Health and Welfare of Wildlife

Luxurious fur comes from healthy animals. Just as your health shows through your skin, an animal’s health shows through their fur.

Overcrowding in wildlife leads to inbreeding, disease and death. The animals aren’t healthy. If trappers allow wildlife populations to get to that point, they lose out in two ways:

  1. Poor quality fur (lower dollar value)
  2. Fewer pelts (less income)

Once a species declines, it takes time to recover. This could mean years of lost revenue for the trapper.

3) Unchecked Traps

There’s no good reason for a trapper to leave wildlife in a trap, unchecked.

  1. In warm weather, the animal spoils. Fur falls out around the spoiled areas.
  2. During cold months, smaller animals pull out fur for warmth in their nests. Meanwhile, it’s a free meal for other wildlife.

Either way, the trapper loses some or all of the pelt. Makes for a poor return on their effort.

4) Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS)

Only traps certified by AIHTS are allowed. Traps designed to dispatch the animal quickly. For a trapper, it’s heartbreaking to find an animal alive in the trap. Especially when their family is there.

For sure the fur will be damaged. Meaning, less value for the pelt. So it makes sense to use the most effective traps available.

For the same reasons, trappers don’t let their traps fall into disrepair. It’s not worth losing the pelt to a malfunction.

The Combined Effect

You can see how everything works together to make this system effective. It addresses the ‘big fear’ people have about trappers. “How do we really know what they’re doing?”

Instead of trying to keep tabs on every trapper, our government saw the value of this system. From the beginning, they allowed trappers to generate an income by selling fur. This not only saved thousands of (your taxpayer) dollars in employee pay but put the responsibility for animal welfare on trappers. And that responsibility reduces the need for constant monitoring.

Those who want trapping banned don’t always see the big picture. They just see one aspect. The trapper, who seems very much like a lone operator, only out for personal gain.

What those against trapping can’t see is the system behind the trapper:

  • the MNRF’s wildlife management plans
  • the many regulations in place to guide trapper behaviour
  • the Conservation Officers to hold them accountale
  • even the ‘citizen police’ efforts

In reality, trappers are the physical laborers of furbearer management. They carry out the MNRF’s plans. Although they may work alone, they aren’t the ones making up the rules.

Trapping is a key component of Ontario’s wildlife management system. It’s the reason we have abundant, healthy furbearers (see how wildlife management works).

The biggest threat to wildlife is the loss of habitat.

Our trappers protect the limited habitats by controlling wildlife populations. This retains the biodiversity (the number and variety of species), which in turn sustains the ecosystems (the interaction between everything in the habitat).

Without management, one species could overrun the habitat and threaten every other species.

We’ve already lost too many plants and animals. It’s important to understand that wildlife management isn’t going anywhere. So trapping is going to continue to happen in Ontario.

Our trappers aren’t out there being careless and irresponsible, doing more harm than good.

They’re out there for all the right reasons…

…. preserving our furbearers for future generations.