Education doesn’t have to be boring. Real learning is interest-based and curiosity-driven. It’s also a life-long process. Here is something that piqued my curiosity: the facts about fur, fur trade and wildlife conservation. I learned about that at a conference of Nature Canada and Ontario Nature in North Bay, way back in 2006. It is as relevant today as it was nine years ago. So I want to re-post this mini-essay, titled:

Wild Critters and the Fur Trade

The fur trade contributes $800 million annually to this country’s economy and employs 80,000 Canadians, many of them Aboriginals. It is unique among industries in supporting a remarkable range of cultures, skills and lifestyles. Also it is uniquely Canadian. And it plays an important role in environmental conservation and habitat management.

All fur used in the trade comes from abundant species, never from endangered fur-bearers. The fur trade exists on the “interest” which nature provides each year without depleting our environmental “capital.” We call this “sustainable use” of renewable resources; First Nation people call it “the circle of life.”

Canadian government wildlife officials set strict hunting and trapping seasons for each fur-bearing species, as well as rules that are stringently enforced. Quotas and seasons must be respected. Trappers must pass a course about humane trapping methods, traps and principles of sustainable use. Catching beavers and muskrats in northern Canada provides trappers with food and with money needed to buy traps and to maintain a land-based lifestyle. Meat not used for food is returned to the forest to help other animals survive the long winter. If overpopulation must be culled, it makes ecological and ethical sense to harvest the fur too.

But not all furs come from wild animals. Raising mink and fox on farms began here 100 years ago. Today, about half the furs produced in Canada come from family farms. Feed for farmed mink and fox comes from abattoirs, fish plants and other food-processing operation leftovers. Farmed mink also provide oils for skin care, leather waterproofing, organic fertilizers and other products; nothing is wasted.

Internationally, the fur trade is regulated, controlled and monitored by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and by the World Conservation Union, of which the Fur Institute of Canada and the International Fur Trade Federation are members. An example of the fur trade’s commitment to responsible practices is the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards. Jointly funded by the Canadian Government and the International Fur Trade Federation, this important program assures that animal welfare priorities are addressed when they are taken for food, fur, or wildlife management reasons.

In our country, the fur trade goes back several hundred years when native people began selling beaver pelts to exploring voyageurs. What proved to be a bonanza for traders – witness the start of Hudson’s Bay Co. in 1670 – was not so good for the beaver. These animals were trapped almost to extinction. In the mid-1800s in southern Ontario, the Iroquois drove their Neutral and Huron rivals from the region to gain control of the lucrative beaver pelt trade routes to the interior and built large, fortified villages at the mouths of the Humber and Rouge River. A little while later, the fur frenzy that had dominated two-and-a-half centuries of early Canadian history had almost eliminated the species from much of the land settled by the Empire Loyalists. Even in central Ontario, beavers became rare, until they came under some protection with the creation of Algonquin Park in 1893. After that, beaver numbers increased rapidly again. Today, beaver and muskrat make up more than half of the wild animal pelts used in the Canadian fur trade, and these species are once more as abundant as when European settlers first arrived here.

That’s because beavers are prolific breeders. Each year they produce two to four young between late April and early June. Beaver kits are fully furred when they are born. In early summer, females spend more time feeding to ensure ample milk supply, while males tend to the maintenance of dams and the family lodge. Beaver families are essentially matriarchies. If a female’s partner dies, other females quickly recruit a replacement, and life goes on. If the matriarch passes away or gets trapped, however, the colony usually breaks up.

Beavers live in meandering streams, small muddy lakes, and bays flanked by aspen, willow and birch – their favourite food. Throughout much of the spring and summer, beavers spend a lot of their time lazing and grazing on aquatic plants. They are active mostly during the night. In September, they begin to stockpile leafy branches and juicy saplings for the winter, and by November they start mating – furiously. During the winter months, beavers spend most of their time sleeping, only waking up now and then to feed from their submerged cache, and to groom each other to keep their pelts waterproof.

Curiously, in 1946, Argentina imported 25 Canadian beaver pairs to start a local fur industry. True to their custom, the beavers reproduced beyond control and started spreading and even migrating into Chile’s Patagonian region. Sixty years later there were more than 200,000 beavers in Argentina and Chile.

In Canada, beavers can be found in all provinces and territories. In 1890, near the banks of our Don River, archeologists dug up 46,000-year-old bones of a bear-size mega-beaver. Think of what those would have meant to the fur traders! S.G.

Sources: Fur Council of Canada, and personal field notes.