Op-Ed: NH’s fur-bearing animals are being mismanaged

by Weldon Bosworth
Published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
April 8, 2021

THE New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and the Fish and Game Commission are stewards of our public trust wildlife and are responsible by law for managing them such that all species have healthy, stable populations. For the most part, Fish and Game has done a commendable job. Populations of most major game species, including whitetail deer, bear and turkey, are stable or increasing and over the years have provided a sustainable opportunity for hunters to “harvest” wild game.

However, Fish and Game and the commission have done a poor job in managing furbearers. The populations of the Granite State’s native furbearing animals, which include red and gray fox, fisher cat, raccoon, otter, mink, beaver and muskrat, have seen significant decreases in harvests over the last three decades. Far from achieving healthy, stable populations, Fish and Game’s management, or more correctly mismanagement, has resulted in significantly declining populations of these species.

While harvests are not a direct measure of population size, when numbers of trapping licenses remain constant or increase, as they have, it is an indicator of population changes from year to year. In fact, changes in harvest from year to year is precisely the metric Fish and Game uses to set seasons and bag limits for whitetail deer and bear.

The total furbearer harvest by trapping over the last three decades has declined dramatically. Compared to statewide average annual harvest of about 9,400 total animals for the 15-year period from 1990-2004, the average annual harvest over the last three years is about 2,500 animals, a decline of 73%. However, this total includes the far more numerous furbearing species, including beaver, muskrat and coyote, and so understates the impact on several of New Hampshire’s iconic furbearing predators.

The harvest of fisher, red fox and gray fox has declined significantly. Fisher had an average annual harvest of 682 for the 15-year period from 1990-2004 and an average of only 41 annually for 2018-2020 (a 94% decline); the red fox harvest fell from an annual average of 363 to 122 for the last three years (a 66% decline) and the gray fox from an annual average of 109 to 34 for the last three years (a 69% decline). And these estimates of impact to these populations are undoubtedly understated since, inexplicably, Fish and Game only monitors those furbearers that are trapped, not those shot, including those shot in the several wildlife killing “contests” held annually.

Why is this important now? Because Fish and Game is in the process of its biennial rulemaking. These rules affect seasons and bag limits for all wildlife that are hunted or trapped in the state. One would expect, given the significant decline in the harvest of fishers and foxes, that Fish and Game would be closing the season on fisher and, at a minimum, setting much lower bag limits and shortening the season on trapping and shooting foxes. This would help to ensure a healthy, sustainable population of these species in the future as required by New Hampshire law.

However, the draft rules proposal presented to the Fish and Game Commission by state biologists did not include any reduction in the killing pressure on these species. Why not, you ask? In my opinion, because the management of fisher, fox and other furbearing species, unlike other game species, is based upon influence and not science.

Who calls the shots on managing New Hampshire’s furbearers? The 500 or so trappers in the state who apparently want to continue their trapping hobby unabated and regardless of how many of these furbearers remain. The individuals who use fox for target practice during the seven-month hunting season regardless of the fact they very few, if any, are used for food or for their fur. In essence, these animals are used as a living target.

Please call or write your Fish and Game commissioners and tell them you want them to make their decisions based upon sound science and pass rules that recognize the value of fishers and foxes to New Hampshire’s ecosystem and the value to those citizens who appreciate wildlife for reasons other than killing them.

Weldon Bosworth, Ph.D, Ecologist

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