There won’t be many trappers in the woods this season. Fur prices are at an all-time low — that is, if you can sell any of them.
Marten, a relatively valuable fur this past decade, have tanked. The best Canadian and Alaska marten fetched $20. Beaver averaged $14. Less than half of all furs offered were sold.
The bright spot, maybe the only one, was beaver castor. Castor brought $80-$100 per pound at the Fur Harvesters Auction in August. If you are a trapper, you don’t have much to look forward to in the winter of 2020-21.
However, if you are a lynx, the outlook may be a bit brighter. Lynx are usually worth pretty good money. Trappers like to target them because they are easy to catch. A short time ago you could average $200-$300 for decent cats. The present $40 market price, with only a third of the offered cats sold, isn’t going to move many trappers from their rocking chairs. The big cats will be able to roam the willow thickets almost unmolested.
The varying hare population has been high the past three years and is beginning to down-cycle. Lynx have big litters when there are plenty of hares for them to catch. Hares comprise most of a lynx’s' diet, so as go the hares, so go the cats. Hares are down and lynx populations are up. The lynx are looking for alternative food sources. Watch your chicken house, because lynx are not shy animals around humans.
Forty-five years ago I was trapping beaver and fox on the lower Maclaren River. There were also a fair number of marten. In that country hares are scarce, so the fox and marten were eating ptarmigan.
I was working a couple of days a week out of a miserably cold cabin that had been built by a would-be miner in the 1920s. A couple of adventuresome hippies had renovated it in 1970, but had froze out by late September. One morning I woke to my growling dog — there was a big lynx on the front step gnawing on a beaver carcass I had tossed out the door after finishing my skinning the previous evening.
That cat hung around for almost a month. As near as I could tell, he rarely went farther than the woodshed. Where he came from, I had no idea.
I can count the number of lynx tracks I’ve seen on the Maclaren in the last 50-some years on both hands. Studies of radio-collared cats show that these animals like to move. They don’t just move from an area because of a scarcity of prey. At times wild cats, like our pet house cats, seem to be struck with wanderlust.
A couple of cats collared near Kluane Lake in the Yukon in 2016 spent most of the winter in an area of less than five square miles. They took off independently, a couple of weeks apart, and ended up 200 miles away in the Kenny Lake area south of Glennallen a few months later. The striking thing about their travels was that they were very focused in their movement, not stopping to dawdle along the way.
These were adult male cats, not juvenile males looking for a home. One of them was recorded at an elevation of 10,000 feet during his journey. The collars on both lynx both eventually failed, though one of the cats was captured alive by Ralph Lohse (in the chicken coop) and recollared by Fish and Game workers in Glennallen before being released.
The Kluane Lake cats had a good population of hares where they were. As adult cats, they presumably also had a reasonably decent territory marked out at home. Those lynx just needed to know what was on the other side of the mountain.
Right now, I have a lynx hanging out that wants to know how to get into our rabbit pen and/or the chicken coop. In spite of a half-dozen loose dogs around the yard (a couple of which could be confused for small hares that didn’t change color) and 40 sled dogs, this cat comes up to the back of the trucks parked in the yard.
He has been hunting a couple of young hares that my kids found. The kids bottle-fed the hares and released them. While they aren’t exactly tame, they do know enough to hide under the feed shed. I have no illusions — hares are to eat. But I’d rather this lynx ate some of the red squirrels that plague me.
I don’t spend much time trapping these days, but in the past I could have been tempted into catching this big cat in my yard. But I don’t have any friends who wear lynx hats, and the $40 bucks I might get for his fur is far outweighed by the joy we get from deciphering this feline’s nightly wanderings.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.