Conservation groups, aiming to end California's dwindling fur trade, filed a lawsuit Wednesday that would force state wildlife authorities to raise license fees to levels required by law to cover the full costs of regulating the trapping, killing and skinning of wild animals.
That would drive the fees so high it would effectively kill off the trade introduced centuries ago by California's first explorers and settlers, said Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote, one of the plaintiffs.
"We hope the filing of this lawsuit will be remembered as the moment California said goodbye to the handful of people who still kill mammals so that their pelts can be auctioned off in foreign markets and then made into slippers and fur-trimmed coats," she said.
The lawsuit, filed against the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Fish and Game Commission, alleges that revenue generated from the 200 commercial trapping licenses purchased in 2016 for about $117 covered only a fraction of the state trapping program's total costs.
Consequently, taxpayers are illegally subsidizing the state wardens, biologists and administrators who oversee and enforce trapping regulations, according to the lawsuit. It was filed in Alameda County Superior Court by the Center for Biological Diversity and Project Coyote.
Plaintiffs said the cost of a commercial trapping license would have to be increased by at least tenfold in order for the industry to be self-sustaining under state wildlife codes.
State wildlife authorities declined to comment.
Trappers say their days are already numbered.
"As far as I'm concerned, trapping is dead in California," said Reid Aiton, a woodsman in North Coast redwood country and executive director of the National Trappers Assn.'s California chapter. "A way of life has died with it."
Thirty-five years ago, 3,540 trappers were still at work in California's wildlands.
But volatile international markets, the success of fur farms and the growing ranks of the animal rights movement have combined to make it difficult for them to turn a profit.
Of the 200 people who purchased commercial fur trapping licenses in 2016, 50 killed nearly 2,000 mammals for their pelts, according to a department report. The market value of trapped species was low: a coyote pelt fetched about $30, a muskrat's only about $3.
The most commonly trapped species permitted by the state fish and game code are foxes, coyotes, badgers, skunks, muskrats, weasels, raccoons, opossums and beavers.
The Fish and Game Commission has banned the trapping of river otters, desert kit foxes and red foxes, among other species. Most recently, the commission voted to ban all commercial bobcat trapping in 2015.
The commission said the estimated 100 commercial bobcat trappers still working in the state could not afford to pay the costs of regulating their activities, as required by a mandate enacted in 2013.
Those costs ranged from $212,000 to more than $600,000 for bobcat trappers alone in 2015, the commission said.
The plaintiffs say state officials should force all trappers to pay the full cost of regulating them or expand the bobcat trapping ban to all species.
"State wildlife authorities are willfully violating California laws they are entrusted to enforce," said Brenden Cummings, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. "If they are unwilling to follow their own rules, they ought to find another line of work."
4:50 p.m.: This article was updated with an estimate by plaintiffs that license fees would have to be increased at least tenfold to pay for the costs of regulating trappers.