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Murder in an Alaskan Forest

No one-at least no human-knows his name, or even if he had a name.

We don't know where or when he was born. We know nothing about his life.

But we know a lot about his death. A politician/trapper from northeast Pennsylvania went to Alaska and killed him. We know this because the local newspaper opened almost a full page to tell us about the glorious hunt.

The story included two pictures. One three-column picture showed Mighty Trapper, smiling and in heavy cold winter clothing, holding the dead lynx by his back legs, his life cut short by at least 10 years. The other picture showed Mighty and his brother, a biologist with Alaska's Fish and Game Department, each holding a dead lynx. One of the animals appears to be a young female, possibly not even past puberty.

The article tells us that the politician/trapper, who began trapping and killing animals while in elementary school, went to Alaska to "live a lifetime dream of running a trap line in the Alaska interior." He said he hoped his lines would ensnare not only lynx, but wolves and wolverines as well. However, traps are indiscriminate devices that not only capture their intended victim, but also other animals as well, including dogs and cats if they're in the area. He didn't get wolves or wolverine, and only killed one mink. "My first thought," he remembers, "was we should be able to catch dozens every day." Unfortunately for the trapper, the mink traveled beneath the snow and ice.

The average Canadian lynx (Lynx Canadensis), a close relative to the bobcat, weighs 18 to 30 pounds, has acute sight and hearing, has long legs and large furry feet but can't run fast except for short distances, and survives primarily on a diet of snowshoe rabbits. Their only major predator is the human.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the Canadian lynx as "threatened species" in the 48 contiguous states; the Humane Society of the United States is pursuing litigation to change the status to "endangered." The primary habitat of the lynx is the boreal forests of Montana, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, with a presence also in New England, Minnesota, Utah, and Colorado. But, Alaska allows unlimited killing during a three to five month season, depending upon region, beginning about Nov. 1 each year, and Mighty Trapper was there to kill lynx. "The state says to capture as many as you can," he told others after returning to his home.

"Trapping is the greatest sport there is," this politician told the outdoors reporter, and pointed out, "I'm so very proud to be a part of this real American heritage." When not serving as one of three county commissioners, he works every morning for several months a year killing muskrats, raccoons, fox and, reports the newspaper, "other fur bearing animals." He often jokes around-with individuals and in public meetings-that he's a member of PETA. Not the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but People Eating Tasty Animals. It gets a laugh, and lets everyone know what he thinks of animal rights organizations.

As "thrilling" as setting lines and killing lynx may be to some people, it isn't all that difficult. "Because they're curious, not as wary of humans, lynx are one of the easier animals to trap," says Doug Larsen, director of wildlife conservation for the Alaska Fish and Game Department.

A trap line, which may extend several miles, usually consists of dozens of individual traps. The snare wire trap relies upon an animal walking into a wire noose and being strangled by its own forward motion; a steel jaw trap clamps down on an animal's leg; the conibear trap is a body trap. Mighty Trapper used a few snare traps and a couple of dozen coil spring traps. "Most animals suffer from a few hours to a few days," says Pierre Grzybowski of the Humane Society of the United States. The animals often die from hypothermia, strangulation, shock, or from inability to flee predators. Although several trapper codes of ethics suggest that traps be checked regularly, and several states require trappers to check their lines daily, Alaska has no such requirement. Animals that are still alive, even if only barely at the time trappers return, are killed by being choked, clubbed, or shot in the head. The carcasses are often thrown out as trash, the fur usually sent to auction houses.

In the March 2008 auctions, the two largest fur auction houses sold about 5,000 lynx pelts, each for about $300. The pelts of most other animals sold for under $40 each, many for under $10 each. The house takes a 9-11 percent commission. Although prices were higher this year because of extraordinarily cold weather in northern China and Russia, thus causing fewer animals to be killed, "Only a tiny minority trap full-time and can make money from it," says Grzybowski. The money most trappers receive from auction "barely covers the cost of gasoline and the cost of traps." Most trappers, says Grzybowski, "do it solely for the recreation, and nothing else."

About 40 percent of the 500 bidders at the North American Fur Auctions sale were from China, according to data provided by NAFA, one of the two houses. Most of the other bidders came from Russia, Greece, and Turkey. But, the coats don't stay in those countries; they are designed, sewn, and shipped into the United States and other countries where the rich can parade their affluence.