Fur Harvesting

Bringing in furs from spring trapping, Lac La Ronge.
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-B857

Saskatchewan has a rich history of harvesting and marketing its wild fur resources. The industry began in what is now Canada’s Northwest Territories 175 years before Saskatchewan became a province, and preceded settlement of the land for farming by 150 years. At least 55 fur trading posts operated for varying periods between 1774 and 1890. Saskatchewan historically also had a thriving ranched fur industry, but changing economic conditions eventually put the local commercial operators out of business.

Saskatchewan has 25 species of wild mammals with marketable pelts, of which 22 are officially recognized as furbearers under provincial regulations (the exceptions are the three species of rabbits that are taken). The only provincial furbearer species that cannot be harvested is the endangered swift fox. The most important species taken in terms of their economic contribution to the industry are coyote and beaver. Lynx, otter, marten and fisher also contribute significantly. Muskrats are taken in large numbers, but their cash value is significantly less than in other species. The province has the regulatory authority for managing furbearers to ensure the long-term sustainability of populations. For management purposes the province is divided into two major management zones: the Northern Fur Conservation Area (NFCA) covers approximately the two-thirds of the province north of the forest fringe and is further divided into 88 blocks, each of which has its own trapper membership; the South Saskatchewan Trapping Area (SSTA) covers the predominately agricultural land of southern Saskatchewan.

Fur harvesting as a commercial venture is dependent on international demand for fur products. The number of licensed trappers fluctuates with the market demand for furs, ranging from a high of 26,100 in 1979-80 to a low of 2,700 in 1999-2000. The numbers of trappers tend to fluctuate far more in the SSTA, where the price of coyote and red fox fur establishes the degree of interest in the resource. In the NFCA—where there is greater species diversity, the majority of trappers are of Aboriginal descent, and trapping has a traditional value apart from monetary returns—the numbers have tended to be more stable.

Anyone wishing to sell fur in Saskatchewan must have a provincial trapper’s license and must be a Saskatchewan resident. Trappers in Saskatchewan can market their pelts directly to the large fur auction houses in North Bay, Toronto or Vancouver; they can also sell to local dealers or they can market the pelts privately.

The value of the fur industry to the provincial economy fluctuates greatly with market demand, but in general its importance has decreased over time. From 1915 to 1960 there were rarely fewer than one million pelts marketed annually. The value of these pelts peaked at $3.7 million in 1954–55, but had already exceeded $2 million in 1917–18. There was also a period from 1976–77 to 1987–88 when annual cash values exceeded $5 million, peaking at the historical high of $10.1 million in 1978-79. By comparison, in the last 20 years the pelts marketed peaked at 488,400 in 1987–88 and have been below 100,000 in the last five years. Cash value during this period peaked at $7.6 million in 1986–87, but has generally ranged between $1 and 2 million in each of the last 10 years.

While the trapping industry is no longer a key component in the provincial economy, it is still important for its role in helping to foster and maintain traditional values in the northern Aboriginal community. It is also an important source of additional income for many people, particularly in the rural areas of southern Saskatchewan.

Trappers and the trapping industry also make a significant contribution through their role in helping to regulate populations of many species that might otherwise cause significant conflicts. Predator attacks on livestock as well as flooding and infrastructure damage caused by beaver can be kept to acceptable limits when populations are actively harvested. As a participant under Canada’s signature in the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards, Saskatchewan continues to promote improved trapping technologies and methods through ongoing trapper education and through establishment of equipment standards.

Mike Gollop

Further Reading

Runge, W. 1995. A Century of Fur Harvesting in Saskatchewan. Saskatoon: Wildlife Technical Report No. 5, Saskatchewan Environment.