ANCHORAGE - 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.
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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.
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."