YELLOWKNIFE - The Northwest Territories government is hoping record prices for fox fur pelts will encourage northern trappers to target the critters and keep a check on the burgeoning population.

The price doubled at a recent auction in North Bay, Ont., with cross fox pelts going for $100, more than triple the average price. White fox pelts went for $200 -- up from $40 in previous years.

Francois Rossouw, with the territory's Industry Department, said that kind of price for fox is unheard of.

"We really hope the prices will get people targeting foxes," Rossouw said. "Every community in the North has their own resident fox it seems. Instead of having problem wildlife, we would prefer to have them harvest the foxes humanely and pelt them up properly and put them into the market."

Fur has garnered above-average prices this year compared to years past, Rossouw said. Wild fox is particularly in demand from Chinese buyers.

China controls about 90 per cent of the market and has a large, growing middle-class that is starting to covet fur as a luxurious accessory, Rossouw said. Appetite for ranch fox has been growing and now that demand is spilling over into wild pelts.

Record prices might be enough to tempt trappers such as Fred Mandeville. The Hay River, N.W.T., man has been out on the traplines for more than 60 years. He said he's never gone after foxes before.

"We don't bother them," Mandeville said. "They get caught sometimes in the trap."

Trappers are more interested in catching lynx and marten -- pelts that can bring up to $1 million into the territory annually, he said. That could change if prices for fox pelts stay high, Mandeville suggested. There are plenty of foxes around -- especially closer to Yellowknife -- and there are fewer lynx.

Prices would have to stay pretty high to make it worthwhile for trappers because the business is getting more expensive, he added.

"The price of gas is so high. That's where the money goes most of the time. They use snow machines nowadays not like the old days...with dog teams. You didn't have to worry about anything."

If trappers start targeting northern foxes, they will have the blessing of some environmentalists who study the population. Peter Ewins, director of species conservation at World Wildlife Fund Canada, said the fox population can boom in the North, especially when there are lots of lemmings for the animals to feed on.

Trapping foxes is a sustainable hunt which tends to regulate itself, he said.

"The trappers will be the first ones to tell you when numbers are in decline because they won't get so many pelts," Ewins said. "There is a lot of work involved to run the trapline. If you keep coming back in after two or three weeks without more than a couple of foxes, it's not worth your while, so you will ease up."

Even if this year's fox prices don't drive trappers to look for foxes, Northwest Territories government officials say the high prices are good news. The numbers indicate animal rights activists haven't put much of a dent in the demand for fur, Rossouw said.

"Everybody thinks the anti-fur movement has clobbered fur and people don't like fur anymore," he said. "At the end of the day, it's still the best fibre to use when it's cold. There is no two ways about it."

-- By Chinta Puxley in Winnipeg