There was a time when trapping and hunting was a way of life, and the man who sold his pelts to the trading company lived on the edge of civilization, alone and threatened by Indians, wolves and bears.
Those days are gone. Only a handful of full-time "mountain men" remain. But thousands of part-time trappers in this time of economic gloom, find that a few weeks' hard work in the snow-locked back country of Idaho can net them as much as $6,000.
Scores of them lined up at Boise's Holiday Inn for a modern-day "rendezvous" this week to sell hundreds of animal skins to a buyer from Seattle's H. E. Goldberg & Co., the largest purchaser of raw furs in the Northwest. The firm, said senior buyer Jerry Campbell, does an annual business now rated at millions of dollars.
Demand by the $150 million fur industry for natural pelts has been "escalating to the high point this year," Campbell said. "We have people out buying for us from Alaska to the Rockies. We can't get enough natural fur. Women don't like the synthetics anymore, and the fashion industry is demanding fur -- real fur -- for coats and stoles."
The Seattle firm, Campbell said, buys at auction and from regional dealers, but "most of our purchases still come from the individual trapper. For many people it's fun, for many it's a way to supplement their income. Some serious trappers earn as much as $13,000 a year. But there are only a few men left who make a living off it. Only 5 percent of our purchases come from the old-timers."
"Interest in trapping is up sharply this year throughut the Rocky Mountain region and as far south as Arizona," said Dick Randall of Rock Springs, Wyo., a field representative for the Defenders of Wildlife.
"There is a tremendous demand for American pelts, particularly from Europe, and this is the time of the year when the cold, high-altitude states produce the most beautiful, thick, long-haired fur. You can sure beat wages if you trap three or four bobcats a week," he said.
At the Holiday Inn hundreds of silky, gray coyote pelts fetched as much as $70 each. Boxes full of tiny muskrat furs brought between $1.50 to $5 per pelt. Thick, lustrous "cross foxes" were bought for as much as $130 apiece. Beaver pelts went as high as $35. The rare bobcat skin brought $300.
"I do it because it pays the rent in the winter," said Roger Long, 29, a construction worker from Boise. Sam Mitchell, 25, a bank teller, said, "If I didn't get these coyote skins this year I wouldn't have been able to make the payments on my car."
Jim May, 48, a farmer from Jerome, Idaho, stood in line with five coyote pelts so raw that the inside was red. He had them tied through the jaws with a length of twine. Behind him was his partner, farmer Tom Webb, 48, of Wendell, Idaho, who was keeping watch over 20 coyote pelts on the carpeted motel floor.
"It's income and it's fun," May said. "A lot of guys hunt coyotes with guns, but I do it with my greyhounds. It's a great sport. They can be vicious dogs, but we train them to go for the neck or for the hind leg so they don't damage the pelts too much."
Webb said he and May follow their dogs on horseback. "I've been doing it for 20 years," Webb said. "Nothing finer on a cold winter morning."
May said the two men take out about 20 of the greyhounds, which he described as not of the racing variety, but a breed "mixed with Irish or Russian wolfhound that can weigh as much as 100 pounds.The poor coyote only weighs 35 pounds. It's not much of a match."
May watched as Tom Matney, a buyer for the Goldberg firm, shook out each pelt, measured it and noted down the details in his log. "I'd sure like to get about $70 apiece for them," May said. He did.
Also on hand was Rick Reynolds, a pipefitter, who said he hunts coyotes at night with a 22-cal. rifle and spotlights, which is legal because coyotes are predators.
"I started doing this three years ago as a sport," Reynolds said. "Now I'm pretty serious about it. Two years ago you only got $35 for a coyote. Last year it was $50. This year I hope to get $70, like the rest of these guys. That can pay a lot of bills."
Several trappers said that, while they are getting more for each pelt this year, government regulations and competition from other part-time trappers are making it harder to trap prime animals. In 1968, Idaho issued 580 trapping licenses. In 1968, Idaho issued 580 trapping licenses. There were 1,270 in 1975, and more than 2,000 this season.
"That's why there are so few full-time trappers left today," Campbell said. "Fish and Game regulates the length of the season. And the limit for many of these animals. It is the very rare bird who can live with these kind of rules and still make a living."
There is no limit on predators like coyotes. But even this so-called scourge of the western rangelands is becoming harder to find, May said. "We go out with all our dogs," he said, "which are expert trackers. But the problem today is even finding a good coyote. There's too much competition."
Kelcy Ford, a Boise construction worker and trapper, helping Matney sort out the furs, said that trappers are also having to cope with poachers.
"I lose an average of two dozen muskrat traps in a month," Ford said. "That's $3 a trap and the loss of a fur. They take wirecutters and snip off the traps at the ground with the animal in them. They stake you out during the day, watch where you place the traps, and come in at night and steal."
Ford said many trappers want the state to boost the trapping license fee from its present $5 to $20 or more to discourage poachers. "Anyone can buy a license," he said. "We want it made much more difficult. I've started to live on trapping in the winter, it's part of my livelihood, and if someone steals from me he's robbing my table.
"I can't tell you what I'd do with one of those guys if I caught him," he said. "It just isn't fair."
Ford said, however, that another irritant --" the environmentalist" -- has been strangely silent this year.
"It must be the gasoline crisis," he said. "Environmentalists used to ask me how I could trap those little animals, and they would tell me I was inhumane. Now it seems I've got a respectable living.You see, synthetic fur is made of petroleum products, and now people tell me I'm a hero because I'm helping to save some of that petroleum."
Gene Cohen, assistant conservation director of the Sierra Club in San Francisco, said Ford's claim "is a bizarre rationalization. The volume of petroleum byproducts involved in making the synthetic fur is infinitesimal. The trappers' impact on wild life is much more important than any contribution he makes toward the petroleum crisis."
Cohen said the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife are not ignoring the issue and have filed suit with federal fish and game authorities to curb the taking of rare animals, particularly the bobcat.