The wild fur-trade: historical and ecological perspectives.

Author Tapper, S.C. & Reynolds, J.C.
Citation Tapper, S.C. & Reynolds, J.C. (1996). The wild fur-trade: historical and ecological perspectives. In: Taylor, V.J. & Dunstone, N. (eds) The Exploitation of Mammal Populations: 28-44. Chapman & Hall, London.


The exploitation of mammals for fur has existed since prehistoric times and in the Old World it is recorded in a fragmentary way from the sixth century. It has always been an important export from boreal regions and populations were probably not over-exploited until the nineteenth century.
In the New World, systematic exploitation began in the sixteenth century as an adjunct to high-seas fishing in the western Atlantic. French and English companies exploited large areas of the continental interior by trading useful commodities such as steel tools and muskets to native Americans who in turn acted as middlemen to more inaccessible tribes. After American independence and the withdrawal of France, the trade was dominated by several independent companies. During periods of competition many furbearer species were over-exploited and some were extirpated from their native range. The end of the nineteenth century marked a nadir for most furbearer species. In the twentieth century, fur trapping is highly regulated in the United States and Canada and the trapline system encourages individual trappers to conserve furbearer stocks and take only a sustainable harvest. Populations of most species have now wholly or partially recovered. Indeed for some species like the beaver the current harvest is apparently larger than at any time in history.
The continued trapping and trading of furs is highly contentious and many argue that, although sustainable harvests are possible, they will always be difficult to regulate except in the best-ordered western societies. History shows that furbearers are very easily over-exploited and, even with a sustained harvest, furbearer numbers are maintained at much lower population levels than would otherwise be the case. Legal trade in furs also makes the illegal trade easier. However, advocates of the trade argue that in wilderness areas fur trapping is less environmentally damaging than other forms of use (e.g. logging or even tourism). Income from the trade can be used to manage species which in many cases would be considered pests in non-wilderness areas. Finally, fur trapping allows native peoples to retain their culture better than any other way of life.