With Pelt Prices Dropping, N.H.'s Beaver Population Grows

Aug 17, 2016

Beavers have been busy this summer, building dams and creating wetlands—in places they're not always welcome. Commercial trappers are getting more calls to remove beavers from neighborhoods this season, and that's due to a drop in international fur prices. When prices for fur drop overseas, the number of beavers in New Hampshire goes up.

Anton Kaska unfolds a beaver trap and wedges it into the swampy ground in a marsh in a Bedford neighborhood. It's designed to catch the beaver around the shoulders and neck.

“So it squeezes the air out of the lungs, and then holds the throat tight. So it suffocates them really quickly,” he says.

The trap has two metal frames that open like a folding chair, and he stabilizes the sides by jamming sticks into the mud. There's a snare wire in the center that triggers the metal frames to snap shut.

“That’s all there is to it, right there. And hopefully there will be a beaver there in the morning. I’m just going to hide this a little bit…”

Kaska runs a commercial trapping business in New Hampshire. He responds to complaints of animals that may be damaging property or killing pets.

In the past year, Kaska has been getting more calls. He says this winter was the first he's ever had to trap, and his spring trapping rates increased by almost a third. He says this all has to do with the state of the Chinese and Russian economies. That's where the fur market is. Demand has dropped, and so have prices.

"A forty-five or fifty dollar beaver pelt is suddenly worth nine dollars or eleven dollars."

So people who trap for fur have been trapping less. People like David O'Hearn. He says in 2013 he sold his beavers for $48 per pelt.

“To me, that’s a gold mine. I’ll trap beaver all day long for that price.”

But this year, the average price for a pelt is closer to $13. For that price, O’Hearn says it’s just not worth it.

“When beaver prices become suppressed, trappers don’t trap them. Beavers still reproduce. Beavers still clog roadways and flood things. So in a suppressed market you get a lot more nuisance calls.”

A single beaver can build a dam that holds shoulder-high water in just one day. The water here in Bedford has gotten so high that it’s flooding backyards.

Kaska’s not sure how many beavers are in this pond. He should be able to tell once he catches one—by looking at its tail. Beavers are territorial: they fight by biting each others’ tails.

“If tomorrow I find a beaver in one of my traps that has bite marks out of his tail, that will tell me I have two different family units in this area. Maybe I’ve got the stranger; maybe I’ve got the resident. But that tells me that I maybe have more.”

It falls to commercial trapping businesses like Kaska’s to keep the beaver population in check. But trappers face more than just low prices for the pelts.

"Conservation is conservation, if done correctly," says Pamela Michael, board member of Voices of Wildlife in New Hampshire. "Trapping is not done correctly." She and her colleagues are trying to come up with ways to pass a state-wide trapping ban.

“If you look at your pets in your house, these wild animals have the same nervous systems, the same intelligence level as the pets in your house. So cruelty to an animal is cruelty to an animal," she says.

Michael says there are more humane ways of managing wildlife than fur trapping. She says you could move the beavers, or re-route the water with something called a “beaver flow device.”

But Biologist Patrick Tate says beaver flow devices don’t work very well. Plus, they are expensive, and don’t make the state any money. Tate is a Wildlife Biologist and the Furbearer Project Leader of New Hampshire’s Fish and Game, which sells trapping licenses.

“As far as maintaining beaver populations, trapping is the most efficient and economical way," Tate says.

If New Hampshire banned beaver trapping, he says, the beaver population would grow. That would cause more road flooding, bridge damage, underwater backyards, and disease. That disease could spread to pets, livestock, and even humans.

When Anton Kaska finishes setting up his second trap in the Bedford bog, he walks back to his truck. He does a lap around, checking that no one opposed to his work has damaged his car. It's happened to him enough times that he always checks.

"They do things like run a ball-pin hammer or their keys along your truck, or stick nails under the tires," he says. 

When it comes to staking a claim for or against trapping, people can be territorial--just like the beavers.