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Missouri fur trapping plays an important role in the community – and in conservation

Rebecca Smith

Colt Comer is one of the youngest people in sight.

As older folks grab a cup of coffee or chow down on a plate of biscuits and gravy, the six-year-old is busy brushing beaver pelts, prepping them to sell at the annual Missouri Fur Auction.

This story was produced through a reporting collaboration between KBIA and Missouri Business Alert.

He’s been trapping for a little more than a year alongside his dad, Jared Comer. They started trapping when one of their elderly neighbors in Troy in northern Missouri approached them.

“He's in his upper 80s, and he wanted to pass on the heritage and how to do it,” Comer said. “We started helping him and it's led into us doing it ourselves.”

"While nature will control it [animal populations], nature doesn't always control it pretty."
Agent Steve Kistner, Missouri Department of Conservation

Trapping has a long history in Missouri.Both Native Americans and early settlers in the state helped to make Missouri the hub of the western fur trade for many years, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.

But there’s been a decline as anti-fur activism has grown and international trade tariffs with Russia and China have impacted the market.

“It's nice to keep the heritage alive and to learn the trade,” Comer said. “I mean, they've been doing this stuff for hundreds of years. So, to be able to pass this down to my kids means everything to me.”

The once dominant Missouri fur industry has been declining due to shifting attitudes around the use of fur and increased trade tariffs. Missouri Business Alert’s Skyler Rossi has the story of how this enduring market is changing.

More than a hundred people gathered for a recent auction at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in mid-Missouri. Fur trappers from all corners of the state brought their waresfrom last year’s trapping season.This included the pelts and glands of raccoons, otters, beavers and bobcats.

Most of the auction attendees were members of the Missouri Fur Trappers Association, a group of trappers that has a code of ethics and hosts the auction each year.

"We can't continue as a sport if we don't educate the new kids coming into the sport on how to do it properly."
President Charles Samuels, Missouri Trappers Association

The association’s current president Charles Samuels has been a member for 37 years and began trapping as a young kid.

“Every country kid did it to make a couple extra bucks,” he said.

The organization also has a big focus on education. They teach beginner classes and help folks who are just getting into trapping with the goal of passing the skills to a new generation.

“We can't continue as a sport if we don't educate the new kids coming into the sport on how to do it properly – how to use their equipment right and the ethics that go along with it,” Samuels said.

The Missouri Trappers Code of Ethics includes best practices like avoiding over-harvesting, using humane traps and dispatching — or killing —animals quickly and painlessly, and utilizing as much of the animal as possible.

All trappers are also expected to follow all state regulations, such as checking traps every single day.

“I was surprised the number of people that actually thought that traps cause the animal a lot of pain, and it doesn't,” Samuels said. “It just holds in there till you get there in the morning.”

Skyler Rossi
Missouri Business Alert

Trapping is also a traditional method of population control, which the association recognizes in Code 7: “Be a conservationist.”

Steve Kistner, a Missouri Department of Conservation agent in Callaway County, has attended most of the fur auctions since 2012.

The department attends the auction each year to answer questions and tag animals like otters and bobcats.

He said wildlife populations in North America have grown as humans provide them with more food sources, like crop fields and access to dumpsters.

“The North American model of wildlife conservation is intensively managed by humans,” Kistner said. “We’re the primary management of these animals – hunting, fishing, trapping. We help maintain them at a healthy level.”

And, there are consequences when those animal populations grow without adequate numbers being harvested each year, he said.

Rebecca Smith

For example, the decline in demand for raccoon pelts has caused trappers to catch fewer. This has led to a surge in calls to the Missouri Department of Conservation about human-animal conflicts, like raccoons moving into someone’s attic, and about sick animals, Kistner said.

One of the diseases that can impact raccoons is distemper, a highly contagious virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems of an animal. It can lead to brain damage, starvation – and, in most cases, death. There have been several identified outbreaks in Missouri in the past few years.

“While nature will control it [animal populations], nature doesn't always control it pretty,” Kistner said. “You look at disease, you look at roadkill, you look at other ways these animals can be taken out of the population.”

Rebecca Smith

If trapping is done well and ethically, Kistner said, the benefits can be two-fold. It keeps the population of furbearers, like raccoons and muskrats, at a healthy level.

It also protects prey species, like turkeys and deer, because the number of predators is reduced.

Plus, he added, trapping has a purpose. People are using a skill passed down to them, they’re utilizing the animals they catch or they’re protecting livestock.

This is the reason that 17-year-old Grant Case got into trapping – to reduce coyote and bobcat populations. His family owns a cattle farm near Salem, and he began trapping last year as a part of a Future Farmers of America (FFA) contest focused on predators.

“And I really got hooked on it. I really love it,” Grant said.

He said no one in his family – or really around him – was involved in trapping, so he contacted the Missouri Fur Trappers Association and asked for help.

“If I didn't have nobody to help, I probably wouldn't be here,” Grant said. “There's one guy, he really helped me out and brought me some traps and told me about this auction up here.”

He made his first sale at February’s auction, walking away with about $500 for 17 pelts.

Jared Comer and his son brought in about $600 from their variety of pelts. “We had beavers and we had four otters, I think, six ‘coons, three mink, and a skunk,” Comer said.

He was pleased to see that prices were up a bit this year. Last year, raccoon pelts brought just a dollar or two, but this year the average was $8.31.

“I'm already thinking that next year, I'm going to try to catch more ‘coons,” Comer said. “We might put a little effort into it now that we see an uptick in the market.”

But for now, that $600 is going into a bank account for 6-year-old Colt, which he can put toward his future, or more likely, his dad said, toward some new traps.

This story was produced through a reporting collaboration between KBIA and Missouri Business Alert, a digital publication that covers business news across the state.

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
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