WISDOM, Mont. -- Bad enough the fur market is glutted, th economy has gone to hell and the price of pelts is hardly worth the trouble of setting his trap lines. Now fur trapper Al Klasen has to worry that some nut wants to murder him. The letter, though short on logic, was pretty explicit:
"God does not abide the killing of his creatures. You have precisely two weeks to prepare to die," read the typed note that made its way to him in this town of log houses in the Rocky Mountains this month.
"Your deaths, we promise, will be a great deal more humane than that which you impose upon small and helpless creatures." It was signed, "Animal Avengers."
Wacko stuff. Mr. Klasen wouldn't have been much bothered by it, except the threat included his wife. And before he even received the letter, somebody slashed his truck tire and opened his pens, turning loose 42 minks.
So now he packs a pistol. And he turned the letter over to the sheriff in Dillon, who gave it to the FBI.
"I told the sheriff, 'I don't need your help,' " said Mr. Klasen, a proudly self-sufficient man. "All I want to know is, if they come around and cause any trouble, do you want me to bury them, or do you want to take them away?"
The passions aroused by his profession seem poorly suited to Mr. Klasen, a soft-spoken, deliberate man who likes nothing more than a daybreak walk alone in the woods to watch -- just to watch -- elk browse in a field or fox kits romp by their den.
He has been trapping animals for six decades but considers himself an animal lover.
"Environmentalists think you hate animals. You don't. They're a beautiful thing," he said. "But there's always been trapping. I don't readthe Bible too much, but it says right in there they used furs, and they used animals."
At 71, Al Klasen is of a profession considered part of the past. Fur trappers opened up this continent, explored it and brought a tether line of commerce into the wild.
But trappers now seem to be on the endangered list. The campaign by "animal rights" groups has made fur fashions politically incorrect. That and the recession have conspired to bring a 20 percent to 30 percent drop in fur sales over the past year to 18 months, according to Bill Outlaw of the Fur Information Council.
Several big fur houses have gone bankrupt. Major department ** stores such as Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom and even the original furrier, theHudson Bay Co., have taken the slow-selling furs out of many of their stores.
"It's tough out there right now," said Mr. Outlaw. Trappers have been hurt in the pocketbook. The price of pelts has plummeted: Fox pelts that sold for hundreds of dollars now bring $50 each; coyote pelts that brought $125 before now sell for $15.
Mr. Klasen's father and an older brother taught him trapping i Minnesota, at first to control the gophers and then to get weasels and minks for money. In the Depression, a weasel pelt could be sold for 25 or 50 cents.
There are still many trappers -- probably 100,000 now, according to Tom Krause, editor of American Trapper magazine -- but few makea living at it full time. Mr. Klasen and his wife, Tina run a small motel that fills up with fishermen when the Big Hole River is running good. And on a 20-acre spread near his home, he raises minks and foxes and even a few bobcats.
"The animals I raise are almost like part of the family," he said. "You don't want to see them suffer. You take care of them real well, feed them twice a day, give them all their shots. They are treated better than people."
The affection is clear. On a stroll around his place, he nuzzles up to a lick from a pet coyote and coos at a fox in a pen, like a father to babies. His crowded living room is alive with peeps and squeaks: Two tiny fox kits play with a kitten; another box is full of baby ferrets; yet another contains three goose hatchlings, still clothed in down.
He prefers to sell the animals for breeding or pets. But like any rancher with livestock, economics dictates their fate.
He recently "pelted out" -- killed and skinned -- all of his 2,000 minks because it cost more to feed them than he can expect to get.
He has about 150 foxes in his pens, one-fourth as many as he used to have. With pride, he shows off the luxuriant, soft pelts from his farm-raised fox, variants that produce not just silver and red pelts, but also cinnamon, amber and pearl. Farm-raised animals provide about 80 percent of furs these days.
But in January, when the cold-lock of winter has stilled the land and subzero temperatures thicken the furs of the animals, he will climb on his snowmobile. He will head toward the Continental Divide to set his trap lines near the timber lines of the Pioneer range of mountains that ring this plateau.
He has trapped everything from bears to minks to wolverines.With the price of pelts so low now, he mostly traps as a favor to the farmers. Last year he caught 126 of the coyotes that stalk the calves of cattle herds in the area.
He also got 75 badgers and a slew of beavers, which riddle the irrigation dikes with holes that flood the hayfields.
Trappers such as Mr. Klasen argue that such "harvesting" thins the stock and prevents the proliferation of nuisance animals and the overpopulation of others. People who think trapping is cruel "have never seen animals that are too old to fend for themselves or animals that eat up all their food," he said.
"They've never seen what it's like when animals starve to death."
Animal-rights organizations contend that there is more cruelty in the steel-jawed leg-hold trap used by most trappers.
Those groups have seared into the conscience of fur buyers pathetic pictures of blood-spattered foxes, and coyotes that have chewed off their legs to get free. Some such groups also oppose use of farm-raised furs. "It doesn't justify killing an animal just so someone can wear fur," said Amy Bertsch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, based in Rockville.
Ms. Bertsch credits such arguments with the downturn in fur sales. Some major designers now shun fur, and even the television game show "Wheel of Fortune" has dropped furs as a prize, she said.
Industry officials go to great lengths to discount the effect of the animal-rights campaign. The sales slump is caused by a recession that put a damper on all luxury buying, two warm winters in major fur markets of New York and Chicago, and, finally, the Persian Gulf war, said Mr. Outlaw.
And a fur industry boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s spawned many fur farms and an avalanche of Danish imports, creating an oversupply, he said.
Fur industry officials say that the demand will increase when the recession ends and that pelt prices will rise as the shortage is erased. Opponents disagree: "I think the fur market has just stopped," said Cathy Liss of the Animal Rights Institute. Whatever the future, Mr. Klasen expects to be there.
"I'll trap forever," he said. "I just really like it. You can't hardly describe how nice and peaceful it is out there."