lupine wildflower, sitka

From the ATA Archives: Working Together

The year was 2005, and Joe was checking his traps for the first time that season. While driving his snogo down the trail, he noticed a large set of lynx tracks on the trail. His excitement level rose as he slowly powered his snogo along the trail, all the while keeping a close eye on the tracks. As he followed the lynx tracks around the bend toward his next set, his anticipation was building, and a big smile was growing on his face. When the set came into sight, he saw that his set was disturbed and he thought he caught a glimpse of fur as he was shutting his machine off. Then he heard it, the unmistakable sound of moving chain. As he walked up to the set he realized he had caught a very large lynx with four white feet. Joe dispatched the lynx and loaded it in his sled. He was so happy that he could hardly contain himself, just waiting to get home to tell his dad about his success on his new trapline. As word spread of the giant white-footed lynx, Joe got a telephone call. On the phone was a local old-time trapper named Francis who claimed that the trapping area was his. Francis said he had trapped it since 1988, and that Joe must remove his traps immediately. He had an accusatory attitude that made Joe feel real uncomfortable. Joe tried to defend himself by saying that he had scouted this trail for the previous two years and was told by several people that no one had trapped it for at least the last three years. He added that this was the first year he allowed himself to trap it. Francis eventually did change his tone and explained that his son was finally old enough to trap this year, and that he was planning to teach him how to trap on the same line that he had trapped for many years and collected countless fond memories on. Francis eventually did reveal that he had not trapped the line since the 2001 season, but he still insisted that Joe remove his traps.

In this type of situation, who should trap this line? The conflict of multiple trappers in one area seems to be the biggest conflict in the Alaska trapper's world today. All of us can think of a trapline conflict, if not on our own line, one nearby. This article is intended to bring up discussion about those conflicts with hope that it will reduce conflicts like them in the future. There are no governing rules for traplines in Alaska, and few, if any, recent articles have been published on the concept. The most meaningful publication on the topic is in the Alaska Trapper's Manual, which was published by the Alaska Trapper's Association (ATA).

The manual lists a Code of Ethics for Alaskan trappers. I am not going to rewrite all 14 ethical codes, but they are reprinted on page 3 of the September 2006 Alaska Trapper magazine, as well as on the back page of the trapping regulations. Code number 1 states: "Respect other trapper's grounds; particularly brushed, maintained traplines with a history of use." This sounds like common sense, but that single sentence can be interpreted dozens of ways. For example, what exactly does "history of use" mean? So later in the manual more detail is given.

On page 10, the manual has a section on locating a place to trap. To paraphrase, the manual discusses the fact that there have been trapline conflicts as long as there have been trappers, and Alaska's growing human population makes them more common. The manual makes several references to a suggestion that trappers should be able to let their established lines rest untrapped for a year or two, and should still have the "right" to trap them on the third year. In order to clearly define this suggestion, ATA specifically wrote, "Traplines unused for three consecutive years are considered abandoned and therefore are open to taking on the 4th year". What this is saying is that a trapper, at a minimum, should trap a line once every three years (or have a partner trap it for them), but it takes until the end of the third year for another trapper to verify that the area has been vacated. This suggestion is commonly referred to as the three-year rule.

I have been a trapper for numerous years and have come across many different perceptions from other trappers on what exactly constitutes an active, or established, trapline. It seems most trappers have at least heard of the three-year rule. I don't mind the rule, and although I think it clearly favors trappers with established traplines, I try to abide by it when looking for a new area to trap. The rule makes sense in that a trapper can let a line rest (replenish with fur) and should not have to worry about another trapper claiming it as their trapline. It can also allow a trapper to trap multiple lines by rotating lines each year. Also, if for personal reasons, a trapper cannot trap a line for a year or even two, it should still be there for them to trap when personal matters are taken care of.

While the three-year rule might be useful for an established trapper, it makes it fairly difficult for new or relocating trappers to find an area without conflict. It can be very time consuming and expensive to scout an area for three years without setting traps for fear of being told you must remove all your traps because you "jumped" another trapper's line. Asking other trappers about a certain area can be helpful in some cases, but other times it can be very misleading. My experience has been that sometimes more questions are raised than answered with this approach. It seems that people sometimes will only tell you part of what they know, or they may exaggerate their (or their friends) time and experience in an area. Maybe they are looking out for their fellow trappers, or even themselves for that matter, and are not always 100% honest, let's face it - that's part of human nature to you look out for yourself and your friends. As a new trapper, you have no choice but to take all the available information and decide for yourself if an area is being actively trapped. Sometimes you can avoid conflict, sometimes you cannot.

A common complaint from the new generation of trappers, or even experienced trappers that have relocated, is that no matter how much research and scouting they do, and how confident they are no one has trapped an area in years, they end up trapping themselves right into a conflict with another trapper. Sometimes it is the new trappers' fault for doing poor research or being overly aggressive when establishing the line, but sometimes it is not their fault at all. Even if it is undisputed that an area has been untrapped for three or more years, there are often cases where the "old time" trappers don't recognize the three-year rule. After all, that rule is merely an ATA guideline - not a legally binding law.

These trappers believe "their" trapline is theirs until they decide it is not, regardless of how often they trap it. As in the introductory paragraph, there are many similar scenarios where the mere presence of a new trapper is the only reason a previous trapper comes out to run "their line".

I admit, I would feel sympathy for a trapper who hand cut a trail, trapped it successfully for many years, and then decided to take a few years off from trapping to help raise their kids, only to have a new trapper in the area when they find time to start trapping again. But when people begin to defend publicly cut fire lines, seismic lines, rivers, lake shores, and the 5 mile buffer they place around them, years after they have actually trapped there, my sympathy fades fast. If a person makes no effort to maintain and actively trap an area, how can it still be considered "their" trapline? Where does this leave anyone who actually wants to trap? I know a person who has not trapped a particular seismic line for six years, but he insists if somebody starts trapping "his" old line, he will go kick them off. Ironically, he's convinced that there are no new young trappers out there and that trapping is a dying activity, yet this is the very person that will keep young trappers from trapping. It is attitudes like this that are jeopardizing the continuation of trapping. I am sure most people share my attitude when I state that I would like trapping to outlive everybody reading this article, as well as everybody's grandchildren's children.

The very best way to minimize conflict is to maintain a regular presence on your trapline(s), and by a presence, I mean actively trap. Hanging unset traps on trees does not constitute active trapping. I've seen traps hang in trees without moving for years. The same goes with trapline signs. They are often accidentally left behind, or purposely placed by a trapper just to keep others out, despite not actively trapping there. Running a snowmachine down the line, then deciding there is not enough fur there to trap, does not really constitute active trapping either. How is a person scouting an area going to know this was a trapper if no traps were ever set? Also, just because there is not enough fur in the area to make it worth your time, does not mean this is the case for another guy.

If "your" trapline generally has fur on it, is easily accessible, is on a semi-popular trail, is an access route to a lake or river, or is a river or lake shore, or you have a lot of heart felt possessiveness for a line (e.g., cut or brushed it), you should really consider trapping it more than once every three years. These are the types of areas many people look for to trap. You will be doing everyone a favor by being a little proactive in these situations. If you take a few years off from trapping, and you do not have anyone else keeping a trapping presence on that line, your right to kick other trappers off the line later is highly debatable.

If you ever feel someone is trapping on top of you or too close to you, being polite, proper and honest with the other trapper will only benefit both parties. Leave a nicely written note along the trail saying who you are, briefly explain your trapping history and why you believe the other person is trapping where they shouldn't, and ask that person to please call you. Also, maybe take a step back and think the situation over, they might not be doing anything wrong at all. Consider how you would want to be treated, or how you would want your son or daughter to be treated if the roles were reversed, and act accordingly. I am sure most readers remember the amount of effort it takes to set up a trapline, and I hope most readers understand the enjoyment and satisfaction gained from setting up a nice trapline. Being told you have to remove your traps from some standoffish fellow trapper is not the easiest thing to swallow, especially when you think you were in the right to set the line in the first place. No one likes to be accused of wrongdoing, and one of the major points of me writing this is to ask that all trappers try to be honest and friendly with each other. The single best way to settle trapping disputes these days is through mutual agreement.

The way I look at it, we are lucky we don't have more regulations telling us where we can or cannot trap. If we are truly interested in keeping trapping alive, we all need to sit back and reconsider the role that trapping plays in our personal lives, and whether or not we're being fair to ourselves and others.

Alaska Trapper, October 2006



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