column By: Gordy J. Krahn | May, 19
Fur is a renewable resource, a gift from nature that just keeps giving. In addition to extending the hunting season into the doldrums of winter and providing a ready cure for cabin fever, the fur hunters collect has monetary value. But it’s those steps taken after the hunt – along with current market conditions – that determine how much coin the local fur buyer or auction house is willing to fork out.
Fur garments have historically been a universal symbol of wealth, fame and power, and it was the abundance of furbearing animals that provided the impetus for the exploration of the North American continent – annual rendezvous were social hubs where trappers and mountain men sold their furs and hides and replenished their supplies. These festive events were attended by trappers and their families, Native Americans, vendors, travelers and later on, even European tourists.
Like most commodities, fur prices fluctuate based on abundance, fashion trends, local and foreign economies, social sensibilities and a host of other factors. A classic historical example is the beaver-hat trade. Fashionable hats made from beaver “felt” were all the rage during the late 1700s and early 1800s, but by the 1830s they became unfashionable when silk top hats became the new symbol of high society.
But it was the market crash of 1987 that left the deepest, most recent scar, as fur prices tumbled to historical lows and stayed there for years. While fur prices have fluctuated in the decades since, with few exceptions they have never rebounded to their precrash splendor. But the fact remains: Fur has value. Even if the return for an evening in pursuit of coyotes, foxes or bobcats is a tank of gas for the pickup and a box of .22-250s, it’s worth the effort to market those skins.
In recent years, coyotes and bobcats have accounted for some pretty decent checks for trappers and hunters; prime coyote pelts are a favorite for trim on winter garments, and bobcats for high-fashion coats. Competition from fur buyers from the U.S., Europe and Asia is lively, as they aggressively bid for these wares and, by way of this competition, establish the value.
Typically, the farther east and south you go on the North American continent, the lesser the quality of the fur and, hence, the lower the price. Coyotes with pale fur and white bellies from southern Canada, Montana, North Dakota and Idaho command top prices. The best well-handled goods sell for as much as $70 to $100 at 2018 international auctions. Western bobcats have also seen interest from buyers, especially those coveted western cats with clear, spotted bellies, some fetching as much as $1,000. Cats and coyotes from other regions produce considerably lower prices. In the case of bobcats, the best pelts from the Southwest might bring $175 to $250, and northern, southern and eastern cats bring considerably less. The same goes for coyotes, where averages drop to about $20 in the North, South and East. The market for red and gray foxes has been a tough sell in recent years. The best reds sell for $20 to $25, and the best grays top out at $15 to $20.
Mike Wilhite, editor of Trapper’s Post magazine and long-time fur trapper and fur handler, says hunters have several options for marketing their furs, ranging from selling unskinned carcasses to the local fur buyer to offering finished pelts for sale at local, state trapping associations and international fur auctions.
“There aren’t as many options today for selling fur like there was 30 years ago,” Wilhite said. “There are still a few country buyers left and, for the most part, they’re the best option for the hunter. Many country buyers will buy fresh canines and ’cats whole and put them up themselves. If a hunter doesn’t know how to properly handle skins, it might be beneficial to him and the buyer to present them whole. If you’re a good skinner, you’ll likely make a few extra dollars by pelting the animals yourself and selling them to the country buyer ‘green’. “Green” simply means they’re skinned but not stretched and dried. Though many buyers will buy whole animals, it’s best to check with them first because some do not.
“It’s a good idea to clean the animals up a bit when selling them on the carcass to the local fur buyer,” Wilhite said. “Some minor touchups in the field might mean a few extra bucks at the end of the day. First off, clean up as much blood as possible. This can often be done in a stream or pond, or by using snow. I usually carry some wet wipes to clean up excessive blood. It’s also a good idea to plug any entrance and exits holes. A wet wipe or piece of paper towel works well for this. And do it as soon as possible. Blood is easier to clean up when it’s fresh.”
A little grooming can go a long way – use a comb or brush purchased at a pet store. “Brush away dirt and burrs from the fur and generally try to make them look nice,” Wilhite said. “I’ve seen buyers reject hides that were full of burrs, telling the seller to take them home and clean them up. Once all the burrs were removed, the seller was given a premium price. You have to understand that any time a buyer spends cleaning fur is overhead for them. Quite often pelt handling is hired out, so the better you present your fur the less money the buyer has to spend preparing it, which translates to more money in his – and your – pocket.”
According to Wilhite, fur should be sold as soon as possible if a hunter wants to get top dollar. “I bought fur back in the 1980s, and I despised carcass coyotes that were hung in a shed for a few weeks before they were brought in,” he said. “The seller, usually erroneously, thought it was ‘cold enough outside’ for long-term storage. The bellies of canines will turn green and [the fur will] begin to slip quickly after death if not properly handled. Stored outside in 40-degree-plus temperatures is less than ideal. Don’t be disappointed if a buyer doesn’t want your ‘aged’ carcass goods.”
What about those hunters who know what they’re doing and elect to put up their fur? According to Wilhite, fur hunters who have the equipment and the know-how to put up fur will be rewarded. “Country buyers will pay a premium price for well-handled pelts because they don’t have to do anything to them,” he said. “There are also a few traveling buyers out there who would love to get their hands on ‘put up’ fur.
“Many state trapper’s associations host wild fur auctions throughout the winter,” he added. “These are also good places to sell handled and even green fur. These auctions often attract a few area buyers, and sometimes out-of-state buyers, depending on what’s up for grabs. Sometimes, because of competition for certain items, premiums are paid and a few extra bucks can be made. But keep in mind that auctions will charge you a seller’s commission. Depending on the auction, that could be anywhere from 5 to 15 percent or more. However, it could potentially be worth it in extra greenbacks in your hands.”
A simple Internet search should turn up your state’s trapping association and information. As an example, I searched my state’s association and quickly found links to country fur buyers and auctions. I’m guessing most of the state associations provide these. Two other good sources of information are TrappersPost.com and TrapperPredatorCaller.com, both of which post fur market reports and auction information.
Wilhite says international auctions are another avenue for selling well-handled fur. “Heavy, prime, Western coyotes averaged over $100 the past couple years at international auctions, and they’re poised to do the same this year. And many lots of the Western ’cats sold for over $1,000 a skin this past season as well. Though buying is more selective for ’cats and most are worth less than that, most are still worth in the hundreds.” Wilhite cautioned that bobcats must have a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) tag attached to them, regardless of how they’re sold.
“International auctions will have a ‘last receiving date’ for getting fur to them. Once you turn it over to them it’s gone, and you have no say in what happens to it or what it sells for. You’ll drop off your fur at least a month before the auction so it can be ‘part lotted’ with like fur. After the sale is complete, it’ll take up to a month for your check to be mailed. A seller’s commission of about 11 percent will be deducted as well as [a] prep fee, usually a couple bucks a skin, and transportation costs. However, if you have premium fur it could be worth all the fees and costs. Keep in mind when you drop off your fur that it might be three months before you see any money; longer if it didn’t sell and has to be re-consigned to a subsequent sale which might be many months away.”
Then there’s the option of tanning your own fur, or having it tanned. I have several tanned furs from animals I’ve trapped or shot hanging in my office, and they make great decor and conversation pieces. There is also a niche market for these goods at trapper conventions, black-powder rendezvous, flea markets and craft shows, but sales can be hit or miss, according to Wilhite.
“Most fur items are selling at all-time low prices right now, with the exception of bobcats and coyotes, so the tanned fur market is well saturated,” he said. “Don’t expect to make big money unless you have some kind of niche. You’ll need to shell out money upfront for tanning, which could take months, so it’s a slow return on your money. On the plus side, most people buying tanned fur, especially at flea markets, don’t know a good fur from a bad one, nor does it make a difference to them, and [they]will often pay a premium price because it’s ‘pretty’.”
While it’s true that today’s fur market lacks the vigor it had prior to the 1987 crash, the fact remains that fur has value that hunters can tap – one of very few hunting endeavors that can actually pay its own way. And if it transforms an otherwise mundane winter day into an exciting and profitable outing with a fur check waiting at the end of the trail, so much the better.