Hudson Bay Company Bans Fur -What Does It Mean for Wildlife Biologists and Their Profession?
~ Gilbert Proulx
The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), chartered 2 May 1670, was a fur trading business for most of its history (Newman 1986). Bolstered by the profitability of furs, the company bought and sold furs, and became an empire with a major role in the colonization of Canada, with serious consequences on the well-being of Indigenous peoples. This year, HBC has stopped selling animal fur products (Feitelberg 2023). In doing so, HBC joined major retailers like Macy’s and Nordstrom, as well as designer brands like Diane von Furstenberg, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss and others. Select luxury houses have also stopped selling fur, including Chanel, Versace, Valentino and Gucci (Feitelberg 2023). What is the significance of a company that flourished for several centuries to abandon the fur market? What does it mean for wildlife biologists and their profession, and for wildlife conservation and management?
Obviously, the world of fashion, and the public supporting it, has changed. Truly, this is not surprising, for many reasons.
First, while real fur products are expensive, fake furs are relatively affordable and easily accessible. Since the mid-1950s, the quality of faux fur has greatly improved with the development of new textiles that appeal to consumers for their look and comfort (Romanowski 2023). Furthermore, new textiles that are lighter and warmer than old materials are now available (University of Massachusetts Amherst 2023).
Second, in North America, fur trapping has been the subject of controversy for a very long time with a growing number of animal welfare organizations, and a large membership requesting trap reform (Proulx and Barrett 1989; Proulx 2022). For a century already, organized efforts to reform trapping have been aimed primarily at reducing cruelty to animals, particularly by outlawing the steel-jawed leghold trap (Gerstell 1985; Gentile 1987). However, these traps are still available on the market, and they continue to break bones, cut flesh, and cause amputations (Feldstein and Proulx 2022). The continued use of unacceptable trapping devices and the protection of the ‘old ways’ by trappers and pest controllers are largely the causes of so much controversy in mammal trapping (Proulx 2022). The use of antiquated technology and ineffective wildlife control programs resulted in the denunciation of trapping devices that do not meet any standard such as killing neck snares which cause injuries that are as severe as those caused by steel-jawed leghold traps (Proulx et al. 2015; Proulx and Rodtka 2017). Scientists have also criticized trapping standards (Iossa 2007; Proulx et al. 2020) and regulations (Proulx and Rodtka 2019) that cause distress and undue suffering to animals. Scientists showed that current mammal standards such as those of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 1999a,b) and the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS; ECGCGRF 1997) did not reflect state-of-the-art trapping technology and poorly addressed animal welfare issues (Proulx et al. 2020). The continuous controversy on cruelty in trapping is largely the result of an adversarial attitude by the trapping community and some wildlife agencies which turned a blind eye to animal welfare issues (Proulx and Barrett 1989). But it is also the product of sustained campaigns by various animal welfare and anti-trapping groups (Povich 2019; Feitelberg 2023; Humane Society International ̶ Canada 2023).
Third, furbearer trapping is impacting significantly on the persistence of species considered at risk at the national or provincial level (Weir and Corbould 2008; Virgós et al. 2016; Barrueto et al. 2022). The continued use of trapping systems that are not selective, and therefore less efficient at capturing target species, has jeopardized more than one wildlife conservation program aimed at re-establishing wildlife populations and protecting species at risk (Virgós et al. 2016; Agan et al. 2021; Serfass 2022).
Fourth, public values toward wildlife have changed dramatically over the latter half of the 20th century, and there is a shift toward a protectionist view of wildlife which is influencing wildlife management decisions (Cutler 1982; Manfredo et al. 2003; van Eeden et al. 2017). A lack of consideration for animal welfare science, anti-fur campaigns, the impact of unselective trapping systems on wildlife communities, and changes in the public attitude toward a greater protectionist view certainly played a role in HBC’s decision to ban fur. In light of this, I think that wildlife biologists should revisit their views of wildlife conservation and management.
In wildlife conservation, a wildlife biologist’s primary obligation is to wildlife. This was stressed by both the Federal-Provincial Wildlife Committee (1983) and the Wildlife Ministers’ Council of Canada (1990) which stated that “The maintenance of viable natural wildlife stocks always takes precedence over their use”. In other words, it does not matter if the use of a species or group of species is part of a socio-economic system such as fur-trapping. If the activities jeopardize the persistence of populations and cause undue pain and suffering to animals, wildlife biologists should first focus on the well-being of populations and individuals (Peek 1986; Paquet and Darimont 2010; Proulx 2022).
On the other hand, wildlife management takes place within a milieu of psychological, social, economic, political, and cultural influences that are broadly referred to as the human values or social values environment (Keeney 1992). Simply, wildlife management aims at satisfying the social values of stakeholders (Wagner 1989). However, our profession failed at the task. While non-consumptive wildlife management and recreational activities have been requested by the public for the last 50 yrs (Duffus and Dierden 1990), and non-consumptive activities generate millions of dollars annually (Filion et al. 1983; Whelan 1988; Chardonnet et al. 2002), wildlife management in Canada and the United States follows the prescriptive North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (Organ et al. 2012), which is a hunting-focused form of wildlife conservation with 7 principles where wildlife is held in public trust, and is maintained at optimal population levels, for the non-commercial consumptive use by citizens (Feldpausch-Parker et al. 2017; Peterson and Nelson 2017; Serfass et al. 2018). This Model is not out-of-line with prevailing social values attached to wildlife in the early decades of the 20th century (Wagner 1989) when Leopold (1933) defined Game Management as “the art of making land produce sustained annual crops of wild game for recreational use”. However, while I believe that consumptive activities still have their place in wildlife management, the Model is now out-of-line with today’s changing societal values.
One of the principles of the North American Wildlife Conservation Model is that markets for game are eliminated. Exceptions have been made for furbearers because there is an active market in Canada and the USA for furbearer pelts and in some instances meat (Organ et al. 2012). The underlying premise for fur markets is that they are highly regulated and serve a conservation purpose because harvests are allegedly within normal population fluctuation levels consistent with sustainable-use principles. While this latter point may be subject to discussion (e.g., overexploitation of wolverine Gulo gulo ̶ Mowat et al. 2020; risk of extirpation of the rare Pacific marten Martes caurina humboldtensis due to trapping ̶ Linnell et al. 2018), the Hudson Bay Company’s ban of fur products reminds us that society has changed, and the need for fur harvests may not be as necessary from a societal point of view as it used to be in the early days. As society has changed, it may be time for the wildlife profession to change as well.
This is not the first time that wildlife biologists question the orientation and actions of their profession. Over the last decades, such questioning has been raised by Scheffer (1976), Cutler (1982), Yoakum and Zagata (1982), Wagner (1989), Giles (1998), and others. There is no doubt in my mind that our model of wildlife conservation must be modified to include non-game wildlife and non-consumptive activities. A new model should truly address the values of the public. In the case of fur-trapping, it should encompass a series of principles that recognize the need to ban unselective and inhumane trapping devices, and implement standards that are representative of state-of-the-art trapping technology and animal welfare science (Proulx et al. 2022). While wildlife management aims at addressing societal values, it is essential that management decisions ensure the persistence of natural wildlife populations, and that the resource takes precedence over societal values. If wildlife professionals ensure the future of wildlife populations and the welfare of individuals, the occurrence of consumptive and non-consumptive activities will likely gain stronger support from the public. A new model will not convince highly conservative animal rights groups. But the model would certainly appease moderate animal welfare groups, non-consumptive users, and the public in general. A new model would certainly help us to unify wildlife biologists in their view of a more progressive approach to conserve and manage wildlife populations and individual animals.
Director of Science
B.Sc. – Biology – University of Montreal, Quebec
M.Sc – Biology – University of Quebec at Montreal, Quebec
Ph.D. – Zoology – University of Guelph, Ontario
Gilbert Proulx obtained a B.Sc. from the University of Montreal, an M.Sc. from the University of Quebec at Montreal, and a Ph.D. from the University of Guelph. He is a Certified Wildlife Biologist of The Wildlife Society. He has 46 years of field experience as a wildlife biologist. He has conducted research across Canada and in part of the United States. He has tracked animals in Africa, South America, Asia, and Australia. He was Guest Editor for many scientific journals and is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Canadian Wildlife Biology & Management. He was the Chair of the Martes Working Group for 20 years.
Gilbert has published 16 textbooks and field guides on wildlife conservation and management, and 168 refereed papers in scientific journals and books. His main research interests focus on mammals, particularly in forest and agriculture ecosystems:
i) searching solutions to conflicts between humans and wildlife;
ii) studying the habitat requirements of species at risk and species of economic importance;
iii) developing new technology to capture and study animals; and
iv) producing textbooks, field guides, and educational material for the public, wildlife professionals and managers.
Wyoming beaver image generously shared by local photographer and beaver advocate, @savannahrosewildlife. Thank you!