Fireweed in Homer, Alaska

History of the Alaska Trappers Assocation
History of the ATA Updated September 1994

From Alaska Trapper, Setember 1994, pages 16-25

The Alaska Trappers Association was founded in 1973-74. In the May 1990 issue of the Alaska Trapper, we published a history of the association up until that time. The ATA is still a vital force for trappers in Alaska, and this would be a good time to bring that history up to date.

The trapping year 1990 ended at the Trappers Fling with Percy Duyck being awarded the Fabian Carey Trapper of the Year award.

The following year did not begin so well for trappers. In September, Herb Melchior wrote in his column "Alaska Tracks" that, "... on Monday, September 10th the European Parliament voted in favor of the proposed regulation to ban the importation of furs of certain fur bearers from countries that allow the use of steel leg hold traps. As passed, and if adopted by the Council of Ministers, the ban would start on January 1, 1995, with a possible extension of one year if the countries are making significant progress toward eliminating the use of leg hold traps."

This was the first shot in a battle that we are still engaged in. For awhile it looked like some European countries were not going to stay in the Economic Union (the organization that is setting this ban) but Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and even Great Britain caved in to the economic pressure and are now either in the EU or provisionally members. Only Switzerland has voted to stay out of it.

An anti-trapping fight was brewing much closer to home than Europe that fall. In November, the buildings at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks were plastered with and trapping literature. An anti-trapping group had formed on campus, and they were passing out literature which said among other things that, "... Remember that trappers... care only about their profits, not about animals' suffering."

In February l991, the Board of directors of the ATA were Norm Phillips, president, Ron Long, V.R, Al Jones, treasurer, Rick Turvey, secretary, Bill Aldrich, Ron Bennett, Greg Chapin, Wayne Crowson, Joe Dart, Richard Henderson, Bill Kiskin, Dave Miller, Roland Quimby, Ron Schwab and Roy "Shorty" Wilbur.

A bill was introduced by Senators Frank, Sturguluski and Pearce which was "an Act relating to the obstruction or hindrance of lawful hunting, fishing or trapping." This bill would make it unlawful to obstruct or hinder another person's lawful hunting, fishing or trapping activities. In the meantime the ATA was hoping to get some legislation that would enhance Alaska's fur industry and counter anti-fur propaganda, and formed a committee to see what was possible.

That committee established the following three objectives: 1. Promote the fur industry and trapping lifestyle in Alaska, 2. Educate trappers in ethical and efficient trapping techniques and proper fur handling procedures, 3. Educate the general public, and particularly tourists to Alaska, with respect to the appropriateness and importance of trapping to Alaskans. Senator Frank also introduced a bill entitled "An Act to establish the Alaska Fur Resources Conservation Commission." The problem with this new bill was that governor Hickel was unlikely to want to create a new commissionership... so the bill languished. Such notable trappers as John Burns made presentations to legislators in an effort to get this bill off the ground, but it just didn't have a chance.

The state was in the process of creating a Wolf Management Plan to meet the growing problem of high wolf populations. Twelve Alaskan's were appointed to a citizens' panel to examine the problems and possible strategies that would be included in the final management plan. This wolf plan was to become one of the biggest troubles to trappers and every other outdoorsman in Alaska over the next few years (and it ain't over yet).

In February a newly active group of Anchorage trappers, now called the Southcentral chapter of the ATA, held a pro-fur rally at the 1991 Fur Rondy. Anchorage has drifted so far from its roots that they have all but eliminated the word FUR from the Rondy. Carol Torson at Rural CAP, Al Dubord and Tom Lessard got a terrific float together but also drove the antis away from what was to be their big show.

That March Jeff and Marty Meierotto came into town from the Black River and gave us one of most talked about trapper stories in the club... complete with pictures.

The Trapper of the Year Award went to John Majak that year, 1991, for his monumental contributions to the newly published Trappers Manual and for his work over the years on Alaska Trapper covers and drawings, which he donated to the ATA for sale.

In the streets of Fairbanks, the ATA had a direct encounter with the local animal rights movement. Both groups took to the streets in a parade up and down University Avenue. We outnumbered them by an enormous margin, and our support as reported from blowing horns told them that Fairbanks was not an anti town.

The Alaska Trappers Manual was a big hit. It was years in the making, and was the most serious attempt to collect trapping savvy under one cover to date.

The Fish and Game Department came out with its long awaited Wolf Management Draft Plan and the ATA supported it. Here is the resolution that was passed by the club concerning the plan.

We have reviewed the Strategic Wolf Management Plan as described in the draft of September 9, 1991, and find it to be very comprehensive in scope. It is impossible for us to comment on every aspect of the plan at this time. However, we would like to read into the record the following resolution of the Alaska Trappers Association made on October 23, 1991.

Whereas the Alaska Trappers Association recognizes that a wolf management plan is needed, and

Whereas the management of wolves is a controversial issue among various groups, and

Whereas the Alaska Trappers Association realizes that no wolf management can occur unless all interested parties can come to an agreement on wolf management, and

Whereas the taking of wolves is an important part of the trappers' livelihood,

Therefore be it resolved that the Alaska Trappers Association supports the basic idea of establishing zones as outlined in the Strategic Wolf Management Plan, with the following provisions:

  1. That no state land be placed in zones 1, 2 or 3,
  2. The zoning be completed in the shortest possible time, and
  3. First priority should be the zoning for intensive management areas. We believe that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has sufficient data to zone for high use management zones 5 and 6 within 90 days and for the rest of the state within one year, and
  4. Following the establishment of high use management zones, programs to reduce wolves should be established by the Board of Game in an expeditious manner.
  5. Since everyone has had the opportunity to express their views, there should be minimal oversight by any and all interested groups.
  6. That we support the concept of trapper education to enhance harvest opportunities. In high use zones, the public should be given maximum opportunity to take wolves.

Randy Zarnke was actively preparing the ATA Speakers Bureau. This program, which has been exceptionally successful, brings information about trapping to schools and other groups who want to know what it is all about. It is a first class public relations and educational program for trapping.

Dave Schmitz won the trap setting contest at the December 1992 meeting.

In February Ken Dunshie, one of the old time members of the Association, came back onto the board as secretary. We helped to sponsor Linda Forsberg who had a great showing in the Yukon Quest.

Richard Henderson ran his last trapping school in the fall of 1992, but he was rewarded for his work the following spring when he picked up the Trapper of the Year Award for his efforts in behalf of the Association.

That fall we lost Joe Firmin, one of the ATA's earliest and most faithful members. He died in a plane crash in the bush.

The antis were not happy with the Wolf Management Plan, so they organized boycotts of Alaska tourism to protest the "killing of wolves." Governor Hickel, in an attempt to appease them and get some kind of dialog going, called for a Wolf Summit meeting in Fairbanks. It was a media extravaganza.

The ATA could see the writing on the wall. The state was too afraid of the economic consequences of a boycott and called off the wolf hunt. So we opened our first Wolf Trapping School. The idea was to get trappers out there to help bring down those wolf populations. It was originally the brainstorm of Dean Wilson, and the teachers were two veteran wolf trappers, Ben Hopson of Anaktuvuk Pass and Jim Smith of Gold King. The school was a complete success.

We published the first Alaska Trapper magazine with a colored cover, which sported a photograph of a wolf chowing down on a dead sheep. The photo, which was taken by Peter Bachman, Jr., of Fairbanks, became such a hit that we had to make shirts with the picture on it, and we sold hundreds,

Norm Phillips spoke at the "Wolf Summit" but we all realized that the governor was not listening to us anymore. Here's what Norm said at the summit:

The Alaska Trappers Association represents hundreds of trappers throughout the state of Alaska. Many of these trappers are among the most respected in terms of practical knowledge about wolves, and they gained this knowledge directly from wolves... not from television or fund-raising letters.

These trappers know from hard and sometimes bitter experience that wolves are tenacious predators driven to kill far beyond what they can eat. A single wolf kills enough game to feed a couple of human families every year. But that does not make the wolf bad or good. The wolf is a wolf. It is just following its nature.

But the wolf's habit of over-killing does become a serious problem when the game herds are low due to bad winters. Trappers also depend on game to feed themselves and their families. Old timers will tell you about the hunger they experienced in the past when there was no game. This was a time when the natural order ruled. The people who lived here were as vulnerable to starvation as all the other animals, and they too died when the food ran out. Today people don't die of famine when game is scarce, but they do become dependent on outside sources of meat... which is not in anyone's best interest.

Deep snow, such as we have had these past few years, weakens the game animals. If you want to get an idea of what caribou and moose are faced with today, just go outdoors and walk twenty feet away from the plowed road. Then imagine yourself being a moose pursued by wolves as you wallow in the deep snow. It isn't hard to predict the outcome. In the early spring, when the moose is worn down after a long winter of deep snow, wolves can walk on the thin snow crust and easily overtake and kill almost any big game they encounter.

Since the introduction of game management, the years of hunger have diminished. A trapper and his family can now expect to have wild meat on the table most years. It was game management that brought about this beneficial change in Alaska. The management of game means preventing the game populations from getting too big or too small by controlling predation by wolves and regulating hunting harvests. The weather makes this something less than an exact science, but game managers do understand the basic relationships between the game, the wolves and the hunters. They understand that weather plays an important role in game mortality from year to year.

I have been a trapper all of my life, and it would be hard for me to imagine a trapper in Alaska who did not depend on local game for meat to feed him and his family. When there is no fur... life for the trapper becomes difficult, but when there is no meat--it becomes desperate.

Today hunters are no longer permitted to shoot wolves from aircraft, or even to land-and-shoot. Nor is there a bounty system as incentive to reduce wolf populations. The management of wolves is in the hands of the hunter and trapper, but the wolf population is far beyond their control.

Meanwhile there are Alaska citizens who feel that wolves should be allowed to do what wolves do, unfettered by game management considerations.

The Wolf Management Plan was the answer to this seemingly intractable problem. After eighteen months of public and technical testimony from every concerned citizen in Alaska, the data and opinions gathered were the basis for the plan adopted by the Alaska Board of Game. The state was divided up into areas. In some areas there would be no wolf control at all. I would like you to note that these areas were in addition to Federal lands where wolves are already protected by law. Meanwhile, in other areas wolves could be controlled to varying degrees depending on the game situation. In three of these the game situation is, thanks to the deep snow, critical. The trappers understand this problem clearly and know what must be done.

The Alaska Trappers Association appreciates the democratic process which led to the creation of The Wolf Management Plan. We recognize that many compromises were made along the way to satisfy the wide range of interests of Alaska citizens. This is as a democracy should be.

The Alaska Trappers Association fully supports the Wolf Management Plan as adopted by the Alaska Board of Game, and we urge the Governor of the State of Alaska to allow the plan to be implemented as soon as possible, as time is running out.

Let's get on with it.

Joining the ATA at the summit were Tom Krause of the National Trappers Association and Janice Henke of Furbearers Unlimited.

In a protest over the governor's handling of the wolf issue, the ATA joined a recall effort of the governor. Basically the ATA was not happy with the governor's lack of support for his own technical people in the Fish and Game Department, nor his interfering in the outcome of democratic process that led to the Wolf Plan in the first place. Trappers were particularly irked because they agreed to the plan as a serious attempt to compromise with non consumptive users. Now we could see that compromise was not what they were looking for, and we were mad as hell that the governor brought them here to discuss Alaska's handling of our problem.

That's water over the dam now. But meanwhile, based on his success at the wolf school, Ben Hopson wrote an extensive article in the Alaska Trapper on the trapping of wolves.

Rosalyn Stowell and Elwin Lawler received certificates of appreciation for their generous support of the ATA in doing many of the thankless jobs that have to get done.

The Association was in for some big time wolf training over the next couple of years. Jim Masek (who subsequently proved his skill beyond all doubt) taught a number of wolf skinning classes at the general meetings.

Bob Harte came back from Russia after spending a winter there trapping and armed with slides took us on a trip into another world and another time.

The Association donated a fur coat to the Miss Alaska USA pageant, who was Teresa Gates that year.

The Southcentral chapter of the Association got officially underway with their new board: Allen Dubord, chairman, Patrick Wright, vice chair, Tom Lessard, sec., Darlene Marks, treasurer, Doug Marks, Dan Temple, Dave Mader, Reuben Hanke and Keith Bayha.

Richard Henderson was Trapper of the Year that year, and we bid him farewell as he romped through the country killing things. (He just retired from teaching and wanted to get it out of his system.)

That summer, thanks to Joe Mattie, we bumped into Evelyn Berglund, author of Born on Snowshoes, who lived in the Alaska bush when it really was the last frontier. She graced us with a long and interesting interview which recalled her life on the Yukon. Since then she has republished her updated book.

In the fall, Dawn Stuvek was crowned Miss Alaska USA 1994, and she walked away proudly wearing the fur coat donated by the ATA.

The Southcentral chapter held a very successful beaver trapping school that fall of 1993.

By January, Mike Golat was on the ATA board. He was doing a research project at the University of Alaska concerning the economic impact of trapping in Alaska.

Then it happened. Jim Masek took twelve wolves at one set in the most extraordinary achievement in recent trapping history. It was now plain that trappers themselves might just have a chance to control wolves. That catch made believers out of a whole lot of people.

Jim went on to give us a very lengthy interview that details how it is done. An additional Trapper of the Year award was created for the Southcentral chapter which went to Tom Lessard at the 1994 Fling for terrific work in the new Southcentral chapter.

A short history like this does little to tell about the day-to-day jobs in the Association that require people willing to work beyond the call of duty. But this time one of those people, Al Jones, was recognized by the Association. He was awarded, at long last, the coveted Fabian Carey Trapper of the Year in the spring of 1994. Never has an award been more justly deserved, and that is a fitting conclusion to the history of the ATA since 1990.

Photos taken over the last several years (click to enlarge):

History of the ATA updated September 1994 - click here
History of the ATA updated September 1994 - click here

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