A woman holds up a fur at the  Fall 2020 Trappers Fur and Craft Sale in Whitehorse on Oct. 24, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Trappers seeking local markets to weather COVID-19 and climate change impacts

The Yukon Trappers Association held a sale event on Oct. 24

Over 100 people attended the Fall 2020 Trappers Fur and Craft Sale in Whitehorse this year, which was a relief for trappers facing challenges due to COVID-19.

While COVID-19 woes are eventually expected to pass, trappers are also facing down climate changes that could further disrupt traditional harvesting in the Yukon.

Aside from being hit recently by an auction house closure and COVID-19 impacts on international sales, some members have also been discouraged by the change of weather, explained Jackie Yaklin, board secretary and treasurer for the Yukon Trappers Association.

Lack of snow and lack of sufficient cold can hamper easy travel along traplines. She said trappers are having to choose between snowmobiles and quads, a difficult choice when the ground doesn’t set.

The Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board is currently funding a study on how climate change is impacting trapping.

“This is a group of people who generally spend a lot of time on the land, some of these trappers are out for six to eight months on their traplines. So they’re very connected to the land and the seasonal changes. More so than most people, even biologists, because they’re living that kind of closeness to the land and remoteness,” said Shannon Powell, a wildlife biologist who is conducting the survey.

Through 20-minute conversations with Yukon trappers, Powell is hoping to collect information on any changes being seen around species, limited access to traplines due to weather, forest fire impacts and travel conditions.

“I’m just trying to see, is there something happening to begin with? If there is, is everybody seeing that? Or is it regional? And is there a way that maybe they can have more of a collective way to voice their concerns?” Powell said.

Right now Powell is just in the process of connecting with trappers and gathering information.

She expects to have a better idea of the wide picture in the new year, but has already been aware anecdotally of safety issues on thinning ice and people needing to create alternative access trails.

Animals encountered by trappers – in numbers and in fur quality – could also provide important data for tracking climate change in the territory.

This year’s premature heavy snowfall will likely help make that decision to use a snowmobile easy, but trappers have already faced a tough spring and summer of low sales due to COVID-19.

Trappers present on Oct. 24 at the Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre were selling all manner of local furs, including coyote, fox, beaver, mink and wolverine. Crafters offering mittens and slippers embellished with beadwork, as well as pom-poms, also set up tables.

The event was socially-distanced, and attendees wrote down names and numbers for contact tracing.

“Right now, the fur industry is unstable because of the world’s crisis of COVID-19. Remaining in Yukon, Yukon trappers need people to buy their tanned furs. Yukon Trappers Association recognizes this need, and in support of trappers, made arrangements for the venue, so that trappers have a chance to sell their furs,” explained Yaklin.

The fur industry has been hurting since COVID-19 began, which has hampered international travel and purchasing. Yaklin explained that sales have been down due to complications with auction houses and closed borders.

In March this year the Fur Harvesters Auction, the only remaining fur auction house in Canada, delayed their sale as the country closed borders and entered a pandemic lockdown.

The sale eventually moved online, in an industry first, but sales for western coyote, lynx and bobcat were down compared to the previous year, according to the company’s posted numbers.

The company noted that Italy and Korea – at the time two countries hit heavily by the pandemic – were major buyers for those products.

Yaklin said it was a tough event for Yukon sellers.

“Buyers couldn’t make their purchases by tactile examination of the furs; they just didn’t buy,” Yaklin said. The auction house itself admitted, post-sale, that many buyers were reluctant to make big purchases without inspecting the quality of the goods.

Online markets have been a solution for some. The Trappers Association is working on restoring the I’m Fur Real campaign and online store that provided a successful way to sell local furs launched in 2018. Other trappers and crafters have been using the website Etsy, which specializes in handmade products, to sell wares.

In August the auction house hosted an in-person event in North Bay, Ont., but only Canadian buyers could attend. Unsold goods were transferred to an online auction platform. While some species saw a better turnout than the spring auction, many species continued to see low sales.

“For Yukon members, sales results were extremely low. Trappers are in their second year of a whammy,” explained Yaklin.

Last year, in 2019, the North American Fur Auctions entered creditor protection, a move that is often a precursor to bankruptcy. The Canadian company, one of the largest and oldest auction houses, normally held four sales a year for ranched and wild furs.

Yaklin said despite the challenges and changes to the tradition, many Yukoners beginning their annual season this year still love the process.

Some of the traplines in the territory have been passed down through generations – and won’t be disappearing any time soon.

“The most common response to the decreased sales issue is that trappers have to maintain a profession rather than rely only on trapping as a source of income. The lifestyle, however, is too valuable and many simply won’t give it up,” she said.

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com

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