Fur trapping can trace its roots in America back to the practices of ancient Native Americans. Using an array of trapping techniques, Indigenous people harvested mammals as a source of both food and fur. European settlers began fur trading in New England in the 1600s. These early colonists sent the valuable furs they collected back to Europe to settle debts owed to those who had invested in the colonial settlements.

The fur trapping industry proved very lucrative and supported the early Americans as they continued their westward expansion. John Jacob Astor, America’s first multi-millionaire, started his fortune by trading in furs. (His net worth was $20 million at the time of his death in 1848, the equivalent of over $120 billion today.)

Morgan Lucot is a wildlife biologist and furbearer specialist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s (DEM) Division of Fish & Wildlife. According to Lucot, trapping still has a place in the modern world – and trapping seasons often align with hunting seasons.

“While it may not be the most common activity today,” said Lucot, “many proud families continue the tradition both in Rhode Island and across the United States.”

Lucot detailed the types of traps used, as well as the uses made of the animals trapped. “Box traps and body-gripping traps are the two types that we allow in Rhode Island. Body-gripping traps are smaller and more compact, so these traps are easier to take on a hike into the woods. Of course, the animal’s fur can be used for a number of things. It is soft, warm and in some cases waterproof.

“Many of the animals trapped can also be eaten,” Lucot continued. “Beaver, muskrat and raccoon are some examples of regularly consumed furbearers. Beaver castor is also valuable. The castor is a thick substance produced from castor glands near the animal’s hindquarters. It smells musty and a little sweet, and has been used in perfumes and as a flavor additive to foods.”

The other outdoor pastime: Trapping

Jenny Kilburn, a waterfowl biologist for the State of Rhode Island, gets a few pointers from experienced trapper Jim Tapero. Photo courtesy of Rhode Island DEM

Lucot encouraged those interested in trapping to be aware of certain regulations in the practice which can vary state by state. For example, in Rhode Island:

  • No person shall set, maintain or tend any trap without first obtaining a trapping license from the DEM.
  • Residents may set traps on property which they own and on which they are domiciled without obtaining a trapping license.
  • All season restrictions, bag limits, tagging requirements and other trapping laws and regulations apply even when a trapper is on their own property.
  • Every holder of a trapping license shall make a report of the number and species of all fur-bearing animals taken to the DEM within 30 days.
  • Traps may not be set, staked or placed prior to sunrise on the opening day of the season.
  • All traps must be labeled with the trapper’s current trapping license number attached by a metal tag or otherwise embedded or cut into the trap.
  • Written landowner permission is required to trap on private land.
  • All traps must be checked at least once in every 24-hour period.
  • There is no open season on bobcats or river otters.

In addition, trapping is authorized to occur in national wildlife refuges, in accordance with state laws, state regulations, state licensing requirements and the National Wildlife Refuge System mission. To see what is allowed and where, visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service site at fws.gov/story/trapping.

by Enrico Villamaino