With fur out of fashion, Indigenous trappers are endangered

Falling prices, rising costs, and anti-fur sentiment jeopardize a centuries-old way of life.

“Trapping is a huge part of my life,” says Nathan Kogiak, who runs a trapline outside Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories (N.W.T). “It’s how I connect with my own heritage.”
Photograph by Pat Kane

In the spring of 2020, Jules Fournel arrived in Colville Lake, Canada, with $60,000 in cash. As a fur buyer with the government of the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.), Fournel had come to the Arctic hamlet, population 130, to pay advances on pelts of marten, muskrat, wolf, fox, and lynx.

But that winter, word reached the town that Queen Elizabeth II would no longer buy fur products. By the time the news made its way through the rumor mill, local trappers had come to believe that no one was buying fur, so most of them hung up their traps and sat out the season. When Fournel left for home, he still had $60,000 in his pocket. Two years later, the trade still hasn’t recovered in Colville Lake, Fournel says. “Trapping has just crashed in the region.”

Colville Lake isn’t the only trapping economy suffering. Though boycotts like the Queen’s have an unclear impact on the industry as a whole, the recent push to ban fur from fashion runways has coincided with historic price drops, changes in the environment, and a rising cost of living in the remote northern and Indigenous communities that supply the wild-caught fur industry. These impacts are endangering a way of life that has sustained the Indigenous people of northern Canada for hundreds of years.

“In these small communities, there’s no industry,” says Nathan Kogiak, who heads the government’s fur buying program. “The money they get from trapping is most of their money they get in the year.”

When the trapping was good in Colville Lake, “Ski-Doos [snowmobiles] would be running nonstop ‘till three o’clock in the morning,” Fournel says. But now, “you’re not going to make a living off of trapping.”

Whims of fashion

 When Ronald Beaver was 11 years old, he caught his first lynx on a trapline near the Cree community of Wabasca, Alberta, and his dad sold the pelt for $1,100. “That was in 1981,” he says. His dad gave him $100 to spend on whatever he wanted. “I bought one of those little hockey tables,” he says.

Forty years later, things couldn’t be more different. At the March 2022 wild fur auction in North Bay, Ontario, lynx pelts were selling for an average of less than $160 each.

Since the dawn of the global fur trade, prices have been dictated by the whims of fashion. In the 19th century, a mania for beaver hats drove North American beavers close to extinction until a sudden change of style spared them—and tanked the price for beaver pelts.

More recently, industry attitudes to fur have vacillated wildly. In the early 1990s, D’Arcy Moses, a Dene fashion designer from Pehdzeh Ki First Nation, was recruited to produce designs using fur, and found a market for his items with Holt Renfrew, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus.

“Fur wasn’t controversial at all,” he says. “It was peaking in a sense of workmanship, craftsmanship, and being worn as a fashion item.”

But then a determined anti-fur lobby targeted the fashion world. Concerted campaigns drove down demand for fur in high fashion in the late ’90s and early 2000s, only to surge back in the 2010s.

Fur prices peaked in 2014 amid a widespread return of fur to the runway. (See “Why Fur is Back in Fashion,” National Geographic, September 2016.) But the resurgence didn’t last. In the years since, anti-fur activists have won a string of victories by directly pressuring brands and influencers, such as Britain’s royal family, to commit to a future without fur.

Since 2015, Armani, Gucci, Hugo Boss, Versace, Chanel, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Jimmy Choo all have sworn off fur, as have half a dozen other major fashion and retail brands. Onetime champions of wild-caught fur including Canada Goose have joined them. Cities like Amsterdam, states like California, even entire countries, like Israel, have banned the sale of new fur products, and others will soon follow.

Overall, recent trends have not been kind to Indigenous trappers. While the fur farms of Europe and Asia can more easily absorb higher costs and lower prices, profit margins for wild-caught fur are razor thin to nonexistent.

“Three years ago, at Fort Good Hope, I had three trappers come in,” Fournel says. “They all had the same comment: For the effort they were putting in, they just weren’t getting the returns.”

Opposing viewpoints

For critics of the fur industry, the slow death of trapping is celebrated as a major win in the fight to end the inhumane treatment of animals.

“There is no such thing as ethically sourced fur; it’s an oxymoron,” wrote Shely Bryan, Humane Society International’s fur-free campaign advisor, in an email. “Exploiting and killing animals for their fur, either on industrial factory farms or in brutal metal traps in the wild, is not possible without animal suffering.”

Even fur industry insiders recognize the role these advocates have played in setting standards for the industry. They’ve helped drive the creation of certain legal minimums, such as checking leg-hold traps, which leave trapped animals alive, once every 72 hours.

But a total end to trapping would come at enormous cost to Indigenous communities. In northern Canada, trapping and its traditions long predate the commercial fur trade and are a vital part of many people’s cultural identity.

“Trapping is a huge part of my life,” Kogiak, the head of the N.W.T.’s fur buying program, says. “It’s how I connect with my own heritage.”

Chloe Dragon Smith and Robert Grandjambe, Jr., trappers in Wood Buffalo National Park on the N.W.T.’s southern border, have written extensively about how trapping is part of a broader worldview that’s essential to the well-being of Indigenous people in Canada.

“Trapping is a foundation of how we engage with the land,” Dragon Smith says. “Being on the land allows us to be whole in our identities…our emotions, spirituality, mental capacity, and our physical bodies.”

Many people in the Western world view humans as detrimental to nature, Dragon Smith says. “But in our cultures, humans are an essential part of creating abundance and helping everything to thrive in the system.”

Increasingly, environmental authorities across Canada are relying on trappers to be their eyes and ears.

“Trappers, hunters, and fishers, by the nature of their endeavors, need to understand where animals go, what they do, and what they need to be abundant and healthy,” explained Clayton Lamb, a wildlife scientist and conservationist at the University of British Columbia, in an email. “When something isn’t working for wildlife, local land stewards are often the first to know, often before scientists or governments.”

And governments are now putting real money behind that idea. Canada’s Indigenous Guardians program, which employs Indigenous harvesters across the country to monitor their traditional territory for the health of wildlife and changes in climate, expanded with a $100 million investment last year.

“Trappers see everything that happens out there on the land,” says Kogiak. “Most do it because it’s part of their lifestyle. They just want to be compensated for it."

A rare specimen

On a trapline not far from Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, Devon Allooloo places spring-loaded traps and bait inside plywood boxes open on one end. In an instant they’ll snap the neck of a curious animal attracted by the bait.

Allooloo is on the lookout for wolves, wolverines, and martens. They’re the species most likely to produce a decent income for him—though with Yellowknife’s high cost of living, he’ll still need to keep his day job.

Allooloo is a rare specimen these days: a young trapper. He began trapping two years ago to make some extra income, learning the trade from YouTube and online forums.

Part of what enticed him was the N.W.T.’s Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur program, in which the territorial government buys and markets northern furs and guarantees fixed advances, often well above what pelts go for at auction. When they sell for more, trappers get bonuses—in some cases, hundreds of dollars. When they sell for less, they don’t have to pay anything back.

“When there are huge fluctuations in the market, the government will eat that difference,” says Kogiak. “If they didn’t have this program, it would be pretty bleak.”

Still, it’s not enough. Last year there were just 280 active trappers in the territory, Kogiak says. His predecessor told him they once numbered 1,000.

With fur once again facing an uncertain future, Dragon Smith and Grandjambe are hoping subsidy programs can evolve away from market-based incentives, which Grandjambe says can fuel a “mentality to take when prices are high”—or, just as destructively, the opposite.

When prices for lynx fur were high in the 1980s, Grandjambe explained, trappers helped limit the number of lynx and ensured that rabbits—the lynx main prey—remained abundant.

“Then in 1982, when the fur market crashed, you couldn’t give a lynx away,” he says. The result: Trappers gave up harvesting lynx, which then multiplied to such an extent that they depleted the rabbit population. “By ’84 they had no lynx and no rabbit,” Grandjambe says. “That balance has still not come back to this area.”

For Grandjambe and Dragon Smith, these cyclical crises are proof that a return to a more holistic understanding of trapping is needed. Market-based subsidies can only go so far in ensuring Indigenous trapping and its worldview can flourish, they say.

“Wild fur is important, but it’s important for many reasons besides what it is as a product,” Grandjambe says. He and Dragon Smith see an opportunity to market fur for its natural variations and the benefits each pelt brings to an Indigenous community.

It’s possible this could find a receptive audience in the growing Asian market for fur. A recent Vogue Business survey found Chinese consumers are increasingly concerned about animal welfare and ethical practices.

But a better future for Indigenous fur may lie in local markets. For trappers like Allooloo and Beaver, selling locally to those who care about the origin and cultural significance of their fur is one way to obtain higher prices. Beaver sells fur at powwows for use in regalia; Allooloo sells to locals who “can tell the story of how this animal was trapped.”

Moses, the designer who once sold to the world’s fashion houses, also wants to see Indigenous furs find other local markets. He agrees with the anti-fur lobby that the days of making millions of fur-trimmed garments are over.

“But fur is sustainable if you work with Indigenous communities,” he says. “It provides economic benefits, sustains cultures, and instills a sense of pride. We don’t want that taken away from us because of an anti-fur lobby that has never stepped foot on a reservation.”

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