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Connecticut’s Fur Trade Lives On

By Dave Sigworth, publicist of The Maritime Aquarium

March 31 marked the end of the beaver trapping season in Connecticut. The season for river otters ended March 15.

It may come as a surprise to you that there are enough beavers and river otters (and mink and muskrat and foxes and other “fur-bearing” animals) in Connecticut to have legal trapping.

River otters are “not uncommon,” says Paul Rego, a wildlife biologist for the CT Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP).

Indeed, The Maritime Aquarium displays river otters because there are river otters in Connecticut. (Remember that the Aquarium is all about Long Island Sound and its watershed, and the animals that live in it.)

River otters live in all corners of the state. We know folks who have seen them even in the busiest parts of Norwalk. They’re just not commonly seen because they’re generally nocturnal (active at night) or  – here’s an S.A.T. word for you – crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk).

Statistics for the trapping seasons that just ended weren’t readily available last week. But Rego said the average annual harvest is about 200 river otters and 1,000 beavers. The beaver “take” is greater than of otters because: 1) there are many more beavers than otters in Connecticut, and 2) because beavers are more of a “nuisance animal” and thus a target for removal by trapping. (By law, beavers cannot be relocated.)

Harvest numbers are known because trappers are required to have the pelts tagged by DEEP officials. Trappers must be licensed, and are limited to eight otters per season but have no maximum on beavers.

Beavers were a critical economic driver to the settling of New York City. Still today, the city's official seal includes one eagle, one European colonist, one Lenape native American but two beavers.

States allow hunting and trapping as a means for controlling animal populations and, of course, as a way to make money. And it’s hardly new. Trade in beaver pelts was one of our country’s very first types of commerce. In his book, “Nature Wars,” Jim Sterba writes that the Mayflower Pilgrims shipped more than 2,000 beaver pelts to England in 1630. And trade involving beaver pelts helped to establish New York City. In fact, as Sterba notes, New York City’s official seal, which was created in 1686 but still used today, has one eagle, one European sailor, one Native American and two beavers.

“Americans who think trapping is inhumane and wearing fur is repugnant might be astonished to learn how important a role beavers played in North American history,” Sterba wrote. “The exploration and conquest of the northern United States and Canada were propelled in large part by the economic rewards of finding, catching, killing, eviscerating, and skinning these 50-pound aquatic rodents. …

“Beaver pelts became a currency. Trade in them created an economic network that spanned the Atlantic Ocean from the New World wilderness to the royal courts of Europe and lasted for 300 years.”

After centuries of trapping and of clearing forests for farming, it became harder and harder to find beavers, otters and their like here. But, over the last 100 years, as the number of farms in Connecticut dwindled down, the state has become forested again. And our Woodlands version 2.0 has allowed for the return of woodland animals.

Today, beaver and otter pelts remain just as valued for their dense lush fur. A check on ebay finds river otter pelts available for $180 to $300.  Beaver pelts range from $100 to $250.  Rego of the DEEP said some trappers with export licenses find a market for the pelts in Russia and Asia.

The harvesting of animals on land for food, economic gain and/or wildlife management is our legacy and our reality – no different than how we also have relied over the centuries on the bounty from the sea. The challenge for us, as stewards of Long Island Sound and its watershed, is to see that it is done in smart and sustainable ways.

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The Maritime Aquarium inspires people of all ages to appreciate Long Island Sound
and protect it for future generations. A vibrant and entertaining learning environment,
it achieves this goal through living exhibits, marine science, and environmental education.

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