Trappers Line Their Pockets by Snaring Animals in Alaska
Melodie Wright / Anchorage Daily News / January 4, 2007
Palmer Hay Flats -- The fox sat stiffly along a frozen stream near the Matanuska River, its head cocked and paws crossed as if in contemplation. His vivid coat stood out like a stoplight in the white thicket.
The animal had died in a neck snare set by trapper Rick Ellis of Wasilla.
"Oh, I'm happy with this guy," Ellis said, hefting the dead animal in his arms and running an appreciative hand over the thick fur along its spine. "My wife could make a headband out of this strip right here, or I could sell it as is to a taxidermist. Except for this ear, where it looks like he got into a fight, he's in great shape."
Precise numbers are hard to come by, but as many as 1,000 trappers are active in Alaska, according to trapper organizations. In 2004-2005, those trappers harvested furs valued at $1.8 million, according to the Trappers Questionnaire compiled by the state Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation.
Some live in the Bush in a cabin for the season, checking their lines by dog team or snowmachine. Most, like Ellis, are part-timers who work just off the Railbelt. A bird biologist with the Fish and Game Department in the summer, Ellis, 53, in the winter runs three trap lines in the Matanuska Valley.
He catches the animals; his wife, Gaylene, turns their pelts into hats and mittens. Together, they add around $5,000 each year to the family budget. Those she doesn't use are sold to Bob Green of Wasilla, the Alaska agent for the North American Fur Auctions, an international fur sale business based in Toronto. The auction house sells the pelts to fur manufacturing and merchandising businesses worldwide.
Ellis sees his prey as more than carcasses draped in fur. The lives of coyote, ermine, fox and muskrat are short but filled with drama and unpredictability.
Over the past 15 years, he's mapped their movements. He sees trails crisscrossing the terrain like highways, with crushed leaves for pavement and scat for signposts.
This winter, the most important sign is liberally spread over the forest floor. The snowshoe hare population has exploded and there's hare poop practically everywhere. Lots of prey means lots of predators, and Ellis has set his traps accordingly.
He favors neck snares, a lethal loop of silver wire set high enough to catch a passing animal, which then strangles itself.
If the cautious fur-bearer misses the trap, Ellis follows its tracks and sets another. Wild animals always take the route of least resistance, he said, and so he looks for tunnels among the bracken or a narrow opening on a riverbank.
Dressed in flannel, a balaclava and a down coat, he daily patrols his lines on his four-wheeler, making a 10-15 mile circuit within shouting distance of the Glenn Highway. Tucked into pockets are wire cutters, heavy rubber gloves and a .22-caliber pistol.
A MANAGED RESOURCE
The bearded, balding grandfather who spends his working life in the company of animals doesn't personify them.
"It's a renewable resource," he said. He compared the business of trapping to cutting down trees to make paper. "By keeping the numbers in check, we make sure there isn't overpopulation and other kinds of diseases. The things we report are often the only information biologists have about a certain population."
Ellis said he carefully monitors his catch; he aims to keep the animal population viable and healthy. Snaring too many females prompts him to move to another area. A decline in the hare population means he sets fewer traps.
Ellis, who is president of the Alaska Frontier Trappers Association based in the Valley and a newly elected board member of The Alaska Trappers Association in Fairbanks, said most trappers he knows share his values.
There are no bag limits for fur-bearing species. Harvest is regulated by season length, which is dictated by the amount of prey, such as snowshoe hare, in an area, said Howard Golden, Southcentral fur -bearer biologist for the Fish and Game Department.
The Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement of the Alaska State Troopers monitors trappers' activities.
"When it comes to trapping, we have very few complaints from citizens," said Sgt. Tory Oleck, who works in the Valley. "The detection rate of violations isn't very high. We don't have many problems with trappers."
Trappers sometimes cross paths with unsympathetic or downright hostile fellow-citizens.
"I've had theft. Last year I had a guy take a fox out of my snare. He left me a nasty note and put the fox in the bag and left it next to the snare," Ellis said.
And, especially in growing communities such as the core area of the Valley, trappers, like the wild animals they catch, cope with vanishing habitat.
Encroaching development means more competition for territory within trapping ranks. Trappers, who are supposed to operate with respect for each other's gear, in the most recent Fish and Game Department questionnaire reported frequent tampering by other trappers.
Then there's the fluctuating fur market.
According to Randy Zarneke of Fairbanks, The Alaska Trappers Association president, the overseas fashion industry drives the fur market. Some pelts, such as wolf, are in steady demand.
The price for others, marten, for example, fluctuates from $20 to $100 each. Trappers in Alaska split their sales between fur dealers in and out of state, according to the questionnaire results.
"There are many major furriers based in Europe and the Orient. Variations in the currency exchange rate will influence how much fur they can afford to purchase and how much they can afford to pay for that fur," Zarneke said by e-mail. "Their purchasing power affects all levels of the fur market, including trappers."
MORE MONEY THAN A PAPER ROUTE
Ellis caught his first muskrat as a 13-year-old living in Michigan. In the 1960s, a rat pelt was 50 cents and if a kid caught a lot of them, the money was better income than a paper route.
An uncle taught him the basics but mostly, he said, he learned by trial and error.
It takes patience, a keen eye and time to learn the secrets of a particular area. He's been running his trap lines near Palmer for more than 15 years.
Dotted over the landscape are markers like the ridge where he always gets a coyote or two, or the narrow curve in a stream where muskrats like to dive.
He knows the spot on a creek bank where a river otter feasts on last summer's salmon. He points out two beaver dams in the shadow of a gravel pit and tracks a canine by the balls of snow its footprints leave on bare earth.
Ellis's snares are nearly invisible to an unpracticed eye. He uses tree limbs arranged just so to mark his trap. In one, a covered box containing a foothold trap, he finds an ermine.
"These guys die quickly because they have to move to live. They store absolutely zero body fat," he explains. "They'll eat anything. One trap like this, I caught one of these and a marten. The marten was after the ermine and both got into the trap."
One stop on Ellis' trap line is a secluded glade near a tributary of the Matanuska River. The clearing, framed by grassland, woods and water, creates a natural funnel -- or hot spot -- for wildlife, he said. Ellis started baiting the spot with carcasses several years ago and even in snow, boots slide over bare vertebrae or kick up a femur.
Wild visitors of all sizes -- red-backed voles, magpies, coyote, fox -- swarm over the remains, leaving tracks and scat for the sharp-eyed trapper to translate like a broker reads the stock ticker.
Last summer, he brought to this spot a bloated moose carcass, road kill given to him by state troopers, which left behind a stench so strong the "dinner bell was clanging for every coyote within 10 miles," he said. "Nothing goes to waste out here."
Contact Melodie Wright at 352-6721 or firstname.lastname@example.org