Many growers across the country have been left without a market due to oversupplied apple processors. West Virginia rescued its surplus, with a plan that donates apples to hunger-fighting charities.Continue Reading Take Me to More News
This story originally aired in the Aug. 6, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
The price of untanned, or green fur, has been dropping steadily as public opinion and markets have turned away from fur products. Animal welfare groups have advocated against trapping and wearing furs. Supply and demand is also impacted by pop culture and fashion trends. International politics, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, interrupt trade routes and impact the ability to sell fur overseas.
There Is Still A Fur Industry In West Virginia
Every March, fur trappers and buyers gather in Glenville, West Virginia for the annual West Virginia Trappers Association Fur Auction. Raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, and other animal hides are arranged on tall racks, while eager buyers survey the wares as they wait for the bidding to start.
Jeremiah Whitlatch, current president of the West Virginia Trappers Association, is in his first year as president, but fur trapping has always been a big part of his life.
Trapping skills are typically passed down through the family patriarch. Whitlatch’s great uncle, his grandpa and his great-grandpa were all trappers.
“I remember going to their farm in Wirt County, and Grandpa would be sitting there on his stool skinning foxes,” says Whitlatch.
With each year, the size of the trapping community shrinks. When fur prices were high in the 1980s, the association hosted multiple auctions in a year. Now, they only host the one.
“This is a fraction of what the fur sale is normally like,” says Whitlatch.
Despite the instability, trappers in West Virginia continue the sport. Some have found ways to adapt and others have discovered new careers that utilize their unique skills.
There’s More To Trapping Than Just The Hides
In his early 20s, Austin Stutler is one of the younger trappers in the community. He looks forward to the auction each year. It’s a chance for him to reconnect with the trapping community and celebrate the successes of the past season.
“I look forward to it just like a vacation. It’s such a big deal to me and my family,” says Stutler.
He recently inherited his father’s business, Windy Ridge Trapper. It’s a small fur buying and trapping wholesale company in Wirt County, West Virginia.
At Windy Ridge, they specialize in water trapping. Water trapping targets furbearers like beavers, muskrats and minks.
This year at the auction, beaver hides were in demand. That’s partly because sales for cowboy hats have gone up with the rising popularity of the hit western TV show Yellowstone. Beaver fur is necessary to create a nice, felted cowboy hat.
Windy Ridge sells more than just the fur, however. Stutler has a guy that buys the skulls. The meat and castoreum, or castor glands, are used to make bait. The only part of a beaver they don’t use is the bones.
“What is the purpose of killing anything if you’re not going to use every last bit of it that you can,” says Stutler.
Watch this special Inside Appalachia Folkways story below:
Trapping Takes Time, Dedication And Some Sense
On a mild March day, Austin Stutler and his father, Jason Stutler, head out on the Ohio River to check on the beaver traps they had set the day before.
Although anyone can learn to trap, it takes a lot of patience. Trapping regulations require trappers to check on their traps every 24 hours. For most furbearers, the trapping season spans the winter. That could mean some cold conditions.
“Someone that goes is going to fall in. You’re going to get wet, and someone is going to end up about freezing to death,” says Stutler.
The boat approaches the metal traps, which dangle down into the water on the edge of the bank.
Leaning over the edge of the boat, Austin reaches into the water to pull up the trap.
This time, there was something caught in the snare. The Stutlers snagged a small beaver right at the end of the season.
You Can’t Make A Living Just Trapping These Days
Trapping an animal is only half the process. Given the low economic yields after trapping and processing a hide, some trappers have had to think of new ways to utilize their skills to make a living. Mike Gray is a fur trapper that has repurposed his skills for his job in residential wildlife removal.
Gray has also been a trapper since he was a kid. He has a museum-worthy collection of traps and knows the best kinds of snares and footholds to use for the different furbearers.
With his business, ABC Humane Animal Removal, Gray doesn’t have time to fur trap much anymore. Instead, he uses his skills to remove animals from homes in urban areas like Morgantown, West Virginia. Gray sees his career as one that protects people and eases stress for those who might not have much experience with wildlife.
“You see a squirrel or raccoon, but it’s a whole lot different when it’s in the walls of your house,” Gray says. “If you can’t make that individual feel safe in their house, you really haven’t done your job.”
Trappers Are Concerned About The Future Of The Sport
When Gray was younger, there were no educational resources to help him learn how to trap. He had to teach himself how to do it. So these days, he serves as the Education Co-Chair with the West Virginia Trappers Association. He teaches young trappers the skills of the trade, though he says it’s not for everybody.
“If you are extremely tender-hearted, it probably wouldn’t be what you want to do. Because something does die in it,” says Gray.
Even though Gray doesn’t fur trap much these days, he looks forward to the annual auction. It brings together trappers, old and young, year after year.
Though behind the camaraderie and excited atmosphere at the auction, there is some concern. Some members of the younger generation, like Austin Stutler, are worried their dedication might not be enough to keep trapping viable.
“I do have a genuine fear that whenever I am in my 50s or 60s, that there will not be as many of us,” says Stutler.
Stutler, Gray, Whitlatch and others are committed to bringing the younger generation into the sport and keeping the practice going.
“For most of us, this is not a hobby. This is who we are,” says Stutler.
This story is a two-part collaborative series between Folkways reporters Lauren Griffin and Clara Haizlett. For the video companion piece, click here.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.