Fur Heritage Fades as Trapper’s Work Canada’s LoneliestGreg Quinn
A frozen lynx carcass hangs upside down, chained to the beam outside the door of a western Alberta cabin, still dusted with snow.
The big cat may thaw for two days by a wood stove before being skinned. Gordy Klassen found the lynx, along with squirrels and martens, as he roared along his trap line on a snowmobile. The lynx died by a semicircle of branches driven into the ground and baited with scented paste and bird parts. It didn’t take the bait; the cat was caught by a second snare laid behind the main trap.
“That’s a paycheck,” said Klassen, 55, one of Canada’s last professional trappers, saying the hide will fetch perhaps C$350 ($315). “Some days you get a great run and some days you go out and there’s nothing.”
Just 455 Canadians in a population of 35 million called hunting and trapping their job in Statistics Canada’s latest household survey; the least common occupation in a nation that had its origins as a fur-trading colony overseen by Hudson’s Bay Co. Connections to the land are now scarce, with seven in 10 Canadians living in urban areas while demand for fur clothing has waned.
“It’s taken us so many thousands of years to gain these skills -- what a shame if they are lost,” Klassen said on a 40-mile journey across land known more for timber and energy resources. “We may have elevated our standard of living because of oil and gas, but to think that we’ve lost these rhythms, it’s dangerous.”
The 455 hunters and trappers counted in 2011 is down from 1,200 recorded in 2006 and 1,185 in 2001. The most recent survey marks the first time the occupation has fallen to least popular in Canada.
The difficulties facing a professional trapper are clear. The C$350 a lynx pelt brings today compares with C$1,500 in the 1980s, Klassen said. Prey can elude someone who’s trapped for four decades.
“He walked right past my trap,” Klassen said after spotting marten tracks near a creek. Another snare had its bait raided by a crafty lynx that left only footprints.
The fur industry shrank in the late 1980s as a weak economy hurt prices and government policy shifted toward strict license requirements, said Glen Doucet, executive director of the Ottawa-based Fur Institute of Canada.
“I wouldn’t say the trade is in decline,” Doucet said. “It’s more professional and the people involved in the trade have a more diversified stream of income.”
Demand for fur clothing has declined as animal-rights advocates question the treatment of trapped animals and the killing of seals, which has drawn a European Union ban. Klassen and other hunters said tougher regulations led to more humane traps that kill in a few minutes.
Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s environment minister, who represents the northern territory of Nunavut, said people living in the Arctic take care of animals they’ve depended on for thousands of years.
“In the North growing up, you live off the land,” she said by telephone from Geneva March 17 after testifying against the EU seal ban at a World Trade Organization hearing. “It is in our interest for people who depend on the wildlife in our backyard to have a strong conservation plan in place.”
Trapping still has “questionable ethics,” Dan Mathews, senior vice president of campaigns at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said by telephone from Norfolk, Virginia. “We learned that you don’t have to kill animals to survive and in fact it’s bad business at this point.”
Trapping was big business for the “voyageurs” and “coureur de bois” -- French for “forest runner” -- who paddled North American rivers centuries ago, seeking beaver pelts to feed a European fashion craze. King Charles II of England granted control of the territory known as Rupert’s Land to the Hudson’s Bay Co. to establish a fur-trading network in 1670. Canada bought the 7 million square kilometers (2.7 million square miles) that covers present-day Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, and parts of Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut, for C$1.5 million in 1869, two years after the country was established.
Hudson’s Bay spokeswoman Michelle Veilleux said nobody was available to comment on the company’s current use of fur products or the changing role of trapping in Canada. Most fur operations were dropped in 1987 and the Bay now focuses on running the nation’s largest department-store chain as well as Saks Fifth Avenue.
While the main store in downtown Ottawa has a display showcasing the company’s history, with iconic striped blankets and a “Caribou Throw” made of wool, there’s no real fur in sight. The fur salon is in the basement, at the back.
Canada still honors its fur-trading history. Ottawa’s airport displays a birch bark canoe and a plaque stating that 80 percent of fur shipments once floated down the river below the country’s Parliament. The beaver is on the country’s five-cent coin and a caribou on the 25-cent piece.
Economic historians Harold Innis and W.A. Mackintosh developed the ‘staple’ thesis, showing how Canada’s social and economic development was driven by commodity exports. Today, the European fur trade has been replaced by energy and the U.S.
From the “coureur de bois and fur traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company who mapped out and settled the vast wilderness before them, it is no exaggeration to say that Canada was founded on trade,” Foreign Minister John Baird said in a Jan. 16 speech in Washington that encouraged the U.S. to approve Calgary-based TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Mark Downey, chief executive officer of Fur Harvesters Auction Inc. in North Bay, Ontario, says few of the 22,000 North Americans who send him furs make trapping their main income source.
“These trappers, some of them doctors, some of them are lawyers, some of them are contract workers who build houses in the summer and trap in the winter,” he said.
Wrangler Hamm, 29, began trapping four years ago to supplement his day job as an emergency room nurse. Most of his work is trapping animals that threaten people and livestock, he said, and the money isn’t substantial.
“It’s too much risk for what’s involved to solely say that’s what you are going to do for the rest of your life,” Hamm said by telephone from Central Butte, Saskatchewan. He surveyed 53 trappers online for an industry presentation and found many don’t consider their work to be a business.
Hamm said people in rural Saskatchewan, in the former Rupert’s Land, see trapping as a strange occupation. The province has Canada’s lowest unemployment rate at 3.9 percent with oil from the Bakken formation aiding a hiring boom.
“A lot of people have become unattached from what Canada used to be,” he said. “But that comes with population, oil and gas and forestry, everything that’s tied into society today.”
Mike Moroz, who gave up trapping 25 years ago, agrees “there is no such thing as a professional hunter” today. Low fur prices and higher costs make the profession impossible, he said.
“You might make yourself in a good year twenty-five or thirty thousand dollars, which is poverty,” said Moroz, 57, who brings hunters to his Klotz Lake Camp near Longlac, Ontario.
Moroz called trapping “a labor of love” because “you see bear, moose, wolves, wildlife, it’s always something different.”
That love died when he sent a batch of furs to an auction house and received a disappointing check for his labor. Furs he estimated were worth between C$4,500 and C$6,000 fetched just C$450.
“I yelled ‘Screw this!’ and I never trapped after that, because it doesn’t matter how much you love it, you still have to pay your expenses.”
Klassen remains hopeful. During an overnight cabin stay that included a dinner of fried moose meat and potatoes with sips of beer, tea and scotch, Klassen said he’s opening a 20,000-square foot hunting supply store close to his ranch near DeBolt, Alberta. He’s drawing on experience from the construction businesses that made him rich and gave him the freedom to trap full-time.
“I’m one of the 455,” Klassen said. “That’s all I have done for the past 10 years” since handing control of his other businesses to his son.
“I talked with my wife about it as I was filling it in,” he said, referring to the household survey. “I wrote it in big block letters -- TRAPPING -- and told my wife, ‘We’ll see how the government likes that.’”
This winter, Klassen cut his trap lines back to 40 miles from the normal 200 or 300, because of harsh weather with wind chills around minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit). Still, he says trapping remains more meaningful than oil riches, and he’s passing along skills to aspiring trappers.
“The number one reason I think they do it is because of a love of wilderness and a real passion for the resource,” Klassen said of today’s trappers. “They don’t run away from tough things, they actually embrace the hardship.”