Furbearer season outlooks get mixed reviews
This is a busy time of year for sportsmen.
Steelhead season is in full swing. The rut is on for archers. The fall walleye bite is picking up, at least in places. Pheasants were stocked again this past week, turkey season just opened and the archery bear season is little more than a week away.
Now, add trapping season.
Opening day for some of the more high-profile furbearers — bobcats, beavers and fishers — is still more than a month away. But the season for rank-and-file, meat-and-potatoes species such as raccoons, foxes, skunks and opossums is open now and mink and muskrats become fair game in two weeks.
So what can trappers and furbearer hunters expect?
There’s some variability, of course. But furbearer populations overall are generally good, according to Pennsylvania Game Commission conservation officers, land managers and foresters.
Here is how they rate the outlook for some species:
Despite being the most-commonly targeted furbearer in the woods, raccoon populations are as high as ever, it seems.
“Every time I set a bear trap, I catch raccoons, so it shouldn’t be hard to trap several of them if you have the time,” said Seth Mesoras, a wildlife conservation officer in northern Westmoreland County.
Randy Pilarcik, conservation officer in southern Butler County, spoke for most officers when he said raccoon populations in his area are “excellent.”
Somerset County conservation officer Travis Anderson suggests looking for them in specific places.
“Raccoons especially have a good population around agricultural areas, and that is where trappers should target these animals,” he said.
Muskrats are another story, however. Still, the second-most frequently trapped furbearer in the state, their numbers are thought to be down and this year promises much of the same: tougher trapping than in decades past.
Pat Snickles, wildlife conservation officer in northern Indiana County, said muskrats can only be found in the choicest habitats. Westmoreland County officer Stephen Leiendecker, too, said muskrats are the only furbearer whose numbers seem to be in decline, while in southern Washington County, officer Richard Joyce said he’s had not a single muskrat complaint from landowners all year.
The one exception might be Allegheny County, where officer Gary Fujak said muskrats remain plentiful.
Fox populations — like those for skunks and opossums — are good in northern Allegheny County, said conservation officer Dan Pahula. They are also plentiful on the eastern edge of the county, said conservation officer Beth Fife.
“Foxes have been reported several times, so I would say they are also doing pretty good,” she said.
“Foxes, both red and gray, are maintaining their population numbers, but I would rate the chances of taking large numbers of these animals as fair as they take a high skill level as a trapper,” added Greene County conservation officer Rod Burns.
In Cambria County, though, fox numbers seem down, perhaps due to competition from coyotes, said conservation officer Shawn Harshaw.
Speaking of coyotes, they are seemingly nowhere in short supply.
Game Commission forester Andrew Hetrick said “coyote sign continues to be abundant” in his area of Somerset County, while Dan Yahner, a land management group supervisor for the commission in Fayette and Somerset counties, labeled coyotes “ever-present.” Fayette County conservation officer Jason Farabaugh said state game land 51 in particular holds a good number of the animals.
Hunters can get some real insight into where to hunt by talking to landowners, added Washington County conservation officer Dan Sitler.
“Those seeking coyotes should talk with farmers,” he said. “They often are in need of coyote hunters and trappers and will offer the best insight into their local area.”
By the numbers
The furbearer harvest in Pennsylvania in 2008, the latest year for which statistics are available, looks like this:
Red fox: 44,745
Gray fox: 20,845
Source: Pennsylvania Game Commission