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Despite upswing in prices, trapping declines in much of rural Alaska

When Heidi Hatcher decided to do an interview project documenting community involvement in trapping across rural Alaska, she figured she might as well gain some first-hand experience. "I wanted to know what I was talking about," she said.

So last winter, Hatcher, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks studying natural resource management, started her own trapline off of Chena Hot Springs Road, just outside Alaska's second-largest city.

Over the long winter she managed to catch a variety of animals, including red fox, ermine, a lynx and lots of red squirrels (which were put back into the trapline as bait.) While Hatcher loved the experience of getting into the wilderness, she found trapping to be frustrating for a newbie.

"It took (Hatcher and her boyfriend) a while to start getting things," she said. "And getting things right to where we would catch stuff, instead of animals going by or without stealing bait."

She used her knowledge to ask questions in a series of interviews in Allakaket and Alatna -- two tiny villages (population 106 and 37, respectively) located on the Koyukuk River in Interior Alaska. What could residents tell her about the decline of trapping in the villages? While Hatcher only has preliminary data (she hopes to finish her thesis this semester), she found an emerging generation gap.

"A lot of people attribute the lack of new interest to Xbox and TV -- basketball even," she said. "The younger kids are more interested in playing inside than going out. It's just a life change has been going on."

It's a small part of a changing village culture across portions of Alaska, even as other areas experience a small trapping boom.

New recreational trappers

Statewide, according to figures from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the number of trapping licenses has steadily increased. Last year, more than 37,000 licenses were sold, up about 27 percent from 2007.

Why isn't exactly clear. Trappers across Alaska cite a variety of reasons, from an increase in rabbits across the state (and, in turn, the animals that eat them), to more classes and outreach. Some trappers say that after decades of closely guarding trapline secrets, some are starting to relax. More trappers are working easily accessible areas, particularly along the road system.

Many new trappers are recreationalists, according to Randy Zarnke, treasurer of the Alaska Trappers Association.

"It's something for people who really love the outdoors, who love doing something productive, love the hard work," he said. "It's you against the animals, and the income is almost kind of a sidelight to the whole thing."

But income might be one reason why trapping declined in the first place in portions of Bush Alaska. Most prices have been flat since the 1970s, according to Dean Wilson Jr., a trapper who lives in the Copper River Valley and the son of famed trapper and fur trader Dean Wilson, Sr.

Back in the early 1970s, a lot of money was earned through trapping in the villages, according the younger Wilson. Now with other jobs available elsewhere, it's hard for some villagers to justify trapping.

"The price of snowmachines, feeding a dog team, everything has gone up, but fur hasn't gone up," Wilson said. "You have a lot more trappers doing it to supplement their income ... It's not a huge money haul."

Fur dealer Mike Willard of Willard's Quality Furs in Copper Center, said he hasn't traveled to Fort Yukon in years to buy furs. What he earns won't cover the price of the plane ticket to fly there, he said.

Prices turning around?

But as the world economy pulls out of its slump, fur prices are bouncing back. Alan Herscovici, executive vice president of the Fur Council of Canada, said a few things are helping increase demand: Fur is fashionable (to some, at least) and more fashion designers are including fur in their collections. Worldwide markets, especially in Russia, China and Korea, are also seeing higher demand.

Herscovici said the 1989 economic decline sent fur prices spiraling. Consider mink, the most popular fur in the world. More than 50 million pelts are produced annually, largely on fur farms, compared to five million wild fur pelts produced in the U.S. and Canada, he said. At the end of the 1980s, farmed mink pelts were about $50 each. By 1992, they had dropped to $20.

"If mink is cheap, wild fur prices are hard to maintain," he said from Montreal. "I can remember when lynx was $800 or $1,000 a pelt. Then it crashed to less than $100."

Mink prices are creeping up now, fetching $50-60 a pelt. Consequently, lynx are averaging about $150 per pelt, with top- quality furs going for about $600, Herscovici said.

Yukon River success

For three decades, Jeff Sutter has trapped out of Mountain Village. But over the last three years, he's worked with Kwik'Pak Fisheries to expand trapping in villages along the Yukon River, where the company operates. Success has come quickly.

Since starting, he's watched the number of trappers in 17 villages -- including Grayling, Shageluk, Alakanuk and Marshall -- go from practically zero to 100. Years ago Sutter was the "last trapper standing" in Mountain Village, a community of about 750 in Western Alaska. Now he said there are 30. Fathers are even taking their sons trapping for the first time in decades, he said.

Sutter travels to different villages to buy fur later sold at auction. He also takes some of the furs, processes them, and brings them back to the community to sewn into jacket, hats, mittens and other products for sale.

Last season Sutter bought $230,000 worth of furs. By comparison, in 2009, his first year buying, he paid out $39,000.

Sutter is paid a salary by Kwik'Pak and doesn't make any money off marketing the fur. The project is part of an effort from Kwik'Pak to expand economic development in the region, one of the most depressed in the state.

"As long as prices keep holding, a lot of guys here will make better money than fishing," Sutter said.

He noted that while he's written some impressive checks -- including one of about $20,000 -- trapping remains a difficult pursuit. Gas is expensive ($7.50 a gallon in Mountain Village, according to Sutter); most trappers just hope for a little extra money after bills, maybe for Christmas presents, he said.

"It keeps them moving during the winter," Sutter said. "And it keeps your head above water when you stick with it."

High learning curve

Fish and Game and groups like the Alaska Trappers Association offer trapping workshops to villages that request them. But that effort doesn't necessarily equate to more trapping.

Sutter said when he first started his fur program he offered workshops to villages, too. Now he doesn't really have to. Knowledge is beginning to trickle down.

Wilson, who has trapped most of his life, takes his children out to maintain their own small trapline.

Trapping is "a lot of hard work, it's not easy to do," he said. "It's not just laying traps and picking them up. You have to work at it. It's a learning curve ... It can take years. If you don't have someone teaching you, it's not going to be easy."

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)