I tend to place heavy emphasis on the important relationships between appointed wildlife managers (biologists, state agencies, conservation officers etc) and licensed trappers. Its a relationship that thrives primarily on unencumbered communication and mutual partnership to properly manage, regulate, and conserve furbearing species for the greater good of all concerned parties; be it public citizen or otherwise. That said, there are those infrequent instances where disagreements sprout up between the two groups - and its important to keep level heads and respectful discourse to establish mutual understanding for differing views.
The tale of how state wildlife professionals at New Hampshire Fish & Game came to the decision to implement a proposed bag limit on fox hunting/trapping could fill the pages of a short novel; so here's my attempt at the Campbell's Soup condensed version.
In early 2018, civilian testimony was submitted to the NH Fish & Game Department suggesting a decline of predatory furbearer populations based on historical take records from yearly trapper reports. These reports are unique and regarded as a very important conservation tool for measuring trapper impact on the landscape, a process that not all states are lucky enough to have.
Historical reports suggest a decline in trapper "effort" and "take" statewide, prompting NH Fish & Game staff to implement restrictions on the "take" of two species in particular - fisher and fox. The Department initially proposed shortening hunting/trapping season length on both fisher and fox. After rigorous public testimony from local hunters and trappers, the Department then opted to reduce take via a bag limit; with the current 5 bag limit on fisher being reduced to 2, and the seasonal take of red and grey fox reduced to just 3 animals per year.
I personally testified at the first round of public hearings that if the Department felt it prudent to restrict these harvest seasons, that they add a contingency to include mandatory carcass turn-in of all acquired fisher and foxes from hunting/trapping activities to aid in determining what may be causing a perceived decline in these species - knowing full well from the beginning that trapping activities were not the root cause. I remain very vocal about a need to garner more data on mortality causes and population health of these furbearer species.
After a ping pong match between the Department, the state's Legislature, and countless rounds of public testimony between the state's hunting community and hunting/trapping critics, NH Fish & Game's rule making Commission opted to rescind the proposed restrictions on fox seasons. The decision was primarily based on a belief that not enough data was sufficiently attained to determine fox populations in the state were in decline, and several commissioners expressed a strong desire to see more data accrued before supporting restrictions on this species.
NH Fish & Game staff have previously stated during public meetings that trapper impact & harvest is not believed to be a factor involved in any perceived decline in fox or fisher populations. While fisher studies are currently being conducted outside the agency to determine what disease issues may be plaguing that population, no such effort has been made to determine what may be causing a perceived decline in foxes - which is where my personal criticism of this proposal stems from.
At the second round of public testimony, with requests to feasibly acquire more data through carcass turn-in or mortality study unresolved, I posed a series of questions to Department staff:
How many foxes are taken annually by hunters?
How many foxes are taken/killed annually by farmers or nuisance control officers?
How many foxes annually have contracted disease (such as rabies and CDV) and succumbed to said disease?
At the time of this writing, nobody has been able to answer these questions. When the Department's Commission ultimately decided to rescind the decision to mandate a bag limit on fox, one commissioner inquired as to what neighboring states were doing about their fox population declines; and more importantly, whether or not neighboring states were even seeing a decline. Again, no formal answer has been presented as of this writing.
Details in The Data
And regarding that trapper-furnished data and the apparent trend of population decline it presents? I went on a fact finding mission to better understand the aspects of trapping harvest data, and the whirlwind of statistical information these reports can present.
The harvest reports submitted by licensed trappers consist of several data points. Yearly species take, number of traps set for each animal, and the number of nights those traps remained on the landscape waiting to catch an animal. From this information, one can access a myriad of figures and statistics on a group of game species that would otherwise receive little to no attention.
Statistics like Catch Per Unit Effort, or CPUE for example. The CPUE essentially provides an index of population density in a given area. It was an apparent decline in the yearly CPUE totals that prompted the Department to assert fox and fisher populations were declining - no real argument there, however there are other factors that need to be considered when working with CPUE figures.
In New Hampshire, trappers are required to have written landowner permission to place traps on land, which greatly restricts the potential for wide trap disbursement. Essentially, trappers and their traps are bottle-necked into restrictive areas contingent on whether or not a property owner allows them to set traps. The downside - private land restrictions limit data intake. Any good biologist (or ecologist) should know that low data sets are never as good as high data sets - this fact in mind, the information gained is still important for many figures. Dig deep enough into the world of wildlife management and one can use all kinds of fun formulas for applying to acquired data.
Let's take New Hampshire's red fox for example. We can measure the number of nights each trapper focused on catching fox during the 76 day season. Total for all licensed trappers combined comes out to 12,887 nights. NH has approximately 9,000 square-miles of landmass. If we divide 12,887 by 76 we come up with 169.565 – which gives us the number of traps set out per night in NH during that 76 day season. 169.565 divided by 9,000 = 0.018 – which gives us the number of traps calculated per square mile. Multiply 0.018 by 100 nights and you'll get 1.8 – which is the number of traps per 100 square miles.
From regional data, we know red fox have an average home range of 2-4 miles, which equates to 3 square miles of occupancy. The home range in square miles (3) multiplied by the calculated number of traps per square mile (0.018) would equate to 0.054 traps per fox home range.
Now, let’s divide that estimated home range to determine how many home ranges for red fox exist in the state. 100 divided by 3 = 33.3 (based on the assumption that the state’s entire habitat is occupied). If we have 1.8 traps per 100 square miles and divide (1.8) by the home range (33) we come up with 0.0545. Multiply 0.0545 by 100 and you'll find roughly 5% of foxes coming in contact with traps in their home range.
What's it all mean? There are clearly not enough traps on the landscape to cause a negative detriment to the fox population (or any furbearer species). So this begs the million dollar question - why are some individuals so hell bent on closing seasonal trapping activities knowing full well trapping isn't the cause? I have an idea as to why, but I'll spare speculation for now.
Graphs and pie-charts are fun and all, but based on the determination above, the root of the original concern with population decline wouldn't be addressed by restricting trapping activities - activities that could exponentially aid in finding out WHAT is causing possible declines. In my mind, it would appear the state is taking a complete leap of faith by suggesting a restriction on seasonal trapping activities is going to "help" our state's fox and fisher - the same determination reached by the NH Fish & Game's rule making Commission when the majority voted to rescind bag limit restrictions.
How about the concerns I've raised with disease mortality? If one was to look years back in the trapping data, you'll see a decline in the amount of several furbearer species taken around year 1988. A little research shows this happens to correlate with a confirmed Raccoon rabies outbreak, which swept through New Hampshire in 1987. Declines in the state's trapping CPUE were once again effected in 2012, which just so happens to be around the same time conservation officers and Wildlife Control trappers like myself began to receive heightened calls from concerned citizens regarding animals "acting strangely". We all know now that this strange behavior has since been traced to the very distemper (CDV) issues that are believed to be affecting individual fisher and fox today.
Several studies, including a few from Cornell University, referenced bobcats as a primary predatory cause of mortality for both fisher and fox. Imagine my surprise given that many of the same people demanding a close to NH fox and fisher trapping now, are the same who fought against the opening of a conservative season to manage increasing bobcat populations 4 years ago. To this day, NH does not manage bobcat populations. I'm not a prophet, but you can peruse this website and find me raising concerns over bobcat depredation on fisher and other wildlife for years now.
Bottom line: The state, and other concerned parties should be working WITH trappers to acquire more data, not shutting trappers out.
The Cart Before The Horse, er, Fox
Of course, all of this is complete speculation because the state has yet to acquire any hard data on mortality cause or decline on furbearer species. You can't exactly fault the Fish & Game Department - funding goes to many things, and with trappers footing the majority of surveillance for the state, its clear little emphasis is put on funding fisher and fox projects. Everyone itches for study funding, but no one seems to want to pony up the cash - well New Hampshire's hunters and trappers have never shied away from helping, and we'll be here when the state is ready to play ball.
What I find unacceptable are the accusations from a few that the NH Fish & Game Commission only "panders to the hunting crowd" for ultimately voting the way they did. Members of the Commission stated they stand behind sound and clear scientific fact with regard to management decisions. The facts speak for themselves - if there is really an issue with fox population stability, trapping clearly isn't the cause, and trapping may very well be a cog in the wheel to resolving it.
I want to be perfectly clear that I'm a supporter of the NH F&G Department staff and their biologists. I am not necessarily contesting their science, expertise, or morality with regards to management. That said, I can’t help but fear the assertion that fox trapping needs to be halted based on assumptions is rather premature, as it would seem those decisions are being made with only a small puzzle piece of overall available and/or attainable data.
One thing's for sure - I'll be damned if I'm going to sit idly by while regulated trapping activities - the state's ONLY current form of furbearer data collection (cost free, mind you), are continually torn apart and frivolously restricted while our mesopredator populations crash and burn from an unknown cyclical spiral. Examples exist in other states where trapping activities were frivolously restricted. Those states now manage many of their furbearer species as a pest, rather than a resource.