Since humans have arrived in Alaska, they have trapped animals. For much of that time period, native Athabaskan and Inupiats lived in small groups and used methods with natural materials that evolved over time. In many cases, trapping was often a necessity. In northern regions of Alaska, where brush and vegetation is minimal, animals can spot others from a long way off. Without the use of high powered rifles, native peoples had to devise means in which they could reach the animals or catch them. The latter option often involved trapping. The Nunamuit, a sub group of Inupiat who have called the central Brooks Range home for roughly 400 years, devised a number of ways to use this to their advantage. Game is/was scarce in the region and often seasonal, with their diet largely consisting of caribou. One of the ways they attempted to catch caribou was through the use of snares. They placed snares made of willow bark or sinew within brush so that when caribou passed through they would be caught. Grizzlies were another animal which were captured with the use of a snare along a trail. Deadfall traps were an additional method and were used in capturing animals like the wolverine.
The ethos behind trapping fell in line with the rest of the culture. This meant that in most cases, the entire portion of the animal was used to show respect. Meat was eaten, furs were used for clothing material and bones formed tools and utensils. Unless in times of starvation, fur bearing animals like wolves and wolverine weren’t eaten but rather offered as a sacrifice. Often, part of the carcass was burned to release the spirit of the animals and bring good tidings upon the hunter. A notable aspect missing of this time was the concept of greed. Not much was taken outside of what they needed, as it violated the attitude which was taken towards the land and for nomadic groups, extra weight was foolish.
There was a change in practices starting in the 18th century after the arrival of explorers from Russia. Once the Russians discovered the high quality furs available, such as that of the sea otter, they dreamed of large profits back home and wanted to acquire all the furs within the region. Through the threat of physical force or death, the native people were made to carry out their bidding. I imagine this was a difficult time for many of those people, as they were forced to use their highly refined skills to essentially practice a sort of genocide. The Russians weren’t necessarily concerned with long term management and in the process, nearly wiped out certain animal populations, like that of the sea otter.
Nothing changed with the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867. Instead, the actions were amplified as more and more people moved into the region over time. By the end of the century, almost all native groups within Alaska had had contact with the western world. With that came the arrival of goods from the white man, such as rifles, ammunition, tobacco, flour, sugar and alcohol. A need for money became apparent as the goods were adopted and many native people took to selling furs. Old practices of snaring particular animals, like the caribou and grizzly, fell by the wayside with the arrival of the rifle.
The heyday of trapping in Alaska started in the early part of the 20th century and continued on to near its close in the late 1980s. With lots of men flooding in from Outside to search for gold, the number of those who trapped surged as people tried to find ways to earn money. Fur often commanded a high price during much of this time period, allowing those people the potential to make a decent living. For those in rural areas, trapping provided a means of obtaining an income where one didn’t exist, or if it did, was offered in limited amounts. Since the 1990s the number of people trapping has significantly decreased due mainly to a large decrease in the price of furs. With many communities now offering a greater variety of jobs, people turn to other means to earn an income than from the land and its animals.
Like hunting, trapping is something I’ve spent significant time thinking about. Yet, unlike hunting, I do not have a clear idea as to what my true feelings are regarding the practice. Before arriving in Alaska, I was not fond of trapping. Admittedly, I knew little to nothing about it beyond the basics. As I’ve spent more time in the region, I have become a lot more comfortable with the practice through increased awareness and knowledge. As it stands, there are two things about trapping that seem to bother me most. The first is the waste. For most trappers, the fur is the only thing that is used. The carcass is completely discarded. To me, this seems little different than the trophy hunter that goes after a moose just for its antlers and does not consider eating the meat. There are some issues with consuming fur bearing animals. For instance, wolves are high on the predator chain and possess a high toxic mineral load due to their consumption of other animals. Wolves and lynx can also carry trichinosis, which can ultimately lead to death if undercooked meat is consumed. The other thing that bothers me about trapping is the means. The use of steel traps can result in animals stuck in traps for extended periods of time and in the worst case, animals chewing off legs or certain body parts to free themselves of the trap.
In the documentary, Happy People (highly recommended), one of the trappers says something along the lines of how a farmer is dishonest, because he raises an animal up before ultimately slaughtering it later on. He compares this to the hunter (Siberian’s term for trapper), who doesn’t try to befriend the animals and they acknowledge him as an enemy or a threat. By living on this planet as a human being, every one of us has an impact. In many professions, that impact is indirect, with damages or resource depletion taken place far from where the action occurs. An example is a car or phone manufacturer. Each requires plenty of rare minerals and oil to fabricate its components, but this is not considered by most when purchasing the product. Trapping is a practice with a direct impact. One sees and determines (to a certain extent) what’s killed and what is removed from the surrounding landscape. Practices with direct impacts are often surrounded with the most controversy.
After all this time, I’m still largely uncertain about trapping. The instances where I could see myself pursuing it in the future would have to follow certain principles. Like all good trappers, greed must be eschewed. The greedy trapper ends up with the least in the long run and causes the most damage by damaging what otherwise would be a sustainable, yet fluctuating population. Waste is something that I’d try to ensure minimizing as much as possible. Whether that means limiting the scope of animals in which I’d pursue and the quantity is something well worth further consideration. In sum, this matter is largely unresolved, and seems to be something that I’ll continue to ponder going forward.