The cold, dark heart of winter in Alaska is the trappers' time. Their observations and experiences provide remarkable insight into wildlife in Alaska.
Every year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game gathers comments and information from trappers, and publishes an annual summary of trapping in Alaska. It's called the Trapper Questionnaire, and it details trapping methods, traplines, effort, animals targeted, and disposition of furs. It also features reports by biologists about trapping and the status of furbearers in different parts of Alaska.
Almost a quarter of the 70-page book is dedicated to comments from trappers, a forum for kudos, complaints, high and low points, problems and insights.
"The comments are always the most interesting part," said wildlife biologist Karen Blejwas, the Trapper Questionnaire coordinator. "They are not shy about sharing their opinions."
"We had an unusually high by-catch of flying squirrels in marten sets - 40 compared to usual 2-5," reported one Interior Alaska trapper.
"Too many road trappers with no respect for established lines," was the gist of a frequent comment. Two Southeast trappers reported that fishers are now present in the Taku River area. The fisher is a large weasel that has only been documented twice in Southeast Alaska.
Close to 50 percent of trappers who respond said they take a youngster with them on the trapline at some point during the season, Blejwas said.
"There are definitely some families out there trapping together," she said.
One trapper wrote:
"Life is always better outside. We wonder why fewer youngsters are interested in the outdoors, well, from the time they can sit up they are in front of the TV ... Maybe the playpen should be outside. Maybe (their) hands should be cold from the snow and their heads wet from the rain. Maybe they should sleep under the stars with an old dog and sit around the fire with mom and dad ... I will always trap ... It's not about the fur, it's the feeling of being outside and being free."
Trapping season varies by area and species, but generally starts mid November and winds up in April. In Southeast, trapping for most species runs from Dec. 1 through Feb. 15. The middle of winter is when pelts are prime and when most trapping is done. Timing can change from year to year, especially with lynx because their population cycle so dramatically.
Some animals in Alaska require sealing - that is, the hide and skull are brought in to a fish and game office for inspection, and a seal is affixed to the pelt. This allows biologists to collect some information on harvest levels and furbearers. This includes lynx, wolf, otter and wolverine, and in some areas, such as Juneau, also includes marten and beaver.
"For fox, coyote, mink, muskrat, weasel (ermine), and squirrels, we don't require sealing," Blejwas said.
Marten is the most important furbearer in Alaska. The fur is called sable. Prices for furs vary season to season, and within species by quality. In 2005-06 the average price paid for marten in Alaska was $81, and top fur fetched $120. Fur buyers paid Alaska trappers more than a million dollars for marten in the 2005-06 season.
Other furs are valuable, but trappers must balance the amount of work involved trapping and skinning the animal against the price paid. The average price for a wolf pelt was about $210, but skinning a wolf is a lot more work than skinning a cat-sized marten - especially if it's frozen solid on a remote trapline. A lynx pelt fetched about $150, a river otter about $80, beaver about $30, and mink about $15.
Many of Alaska's trappers keep most of their fur, but overall, trappers sold more than two million dollars worth of fur in the 2005-2006 season. One Interior trapper reported that marten, wolverine and wolf fur is sold at auction, but beaver is tanned at home and made into parka ruffs, mittens and hats. He reported that 30 percent of his family's income, sometimes more, comes from the trapline.
"There's a huge range of trappers," Blejwas said. "The majority is recreational trappers, the second largest group traps fairly seriously, and then there are a small number of individuals who trap a lot of animals."
The new report is based on the 2005-2006 season, and Blejwas will release the results of the 2006-2007 seasons in a few months. The results of the current season will be out in the fall of 2008.
To learn more about trapping in Alaska, see: http://www.wildlife.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=trapping.reports. The current Trapper Questionnaire will be posted online soon, and print copies are available from Patti Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org
Riley Woodford is a writer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He is the editor of Alaska Fish and Wildlife News (http://www.wildlifenews.alaska.gov/) and produces the Sounds Wild radio program.
Trappers in Juneau are off the beaten path. They have to be, as a great deal of the Juneau area is closed to trapping, including the entire road system, the adjacent coastline and many trails.
Trapping is not permitted within ½-mile of any public or private street or highway in the city and borough. Trapping is closed on the mainland within ¼-mile of the coastline, in a strip extending from the end of Thane Road to the end of Glacier Highway at Echo Cove. A similar coastal strip is closed on Douglas Island - all the coastline along the length of the Douglas Highway.
Virtually the entire Mendenhall Valley is closed to trapping, as is the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge. The area within ¼-mile of Auke Lake is closed.
Trapping is closed along most of Juneau's popular trails as well. Trapping is prohibited within ¼-mile of the following trails: Herbert Glacier Trail, Windfall Lake Trail, Peterson Lake Trail, Spaulding Meadows Trail, Nugget Creek Trail, Outer Point Trail, Dan Moller Trail, Perseverance Trail, Granite Creek Trail, Mount Roberts Trail, Sheep Creek Trail, and Point Bishop Trail.
"A lot of Juneau trappers are trapping on northern Admiralty Island, and some are trapping on Shelter Island and in Berners Bay," said Ryan Scott, assistant area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "People do use the (Juneau) trails to access areas, and then they get far enough away."
As is true throughout Alaska, marten is the most sought-after furbearer.
"This year it seems like the marten harvest is down, but it's still pretty early," Scott said.
Marten trapping closes Feb. 15, and trappers have until March 15 to seal their furs.
"Beavers are pretty consistent, they don't bring a real high price so there's not much effort," Scott said. "Occasionally we see a wolf, occasionally a wolverine. There are some otters coming in - two years ago otters were a high dollar species, but that's changed and the effort has dropped off."