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Boom days for trappers, as higher pelt prices behind surge in participation

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 4:36 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
A work station contains antique traps and new pelts at the Westmoreland Fur Post in Unity Twp. on January 3, 2014.

These are pretty good times to be a trapper.

The prices paid for top-quality pelts have been on the rise, with those offered last season among the highest in years. Red foxes were bringing $50 and $60 each, while raccoons were fetching up to $25 and muskrats $10 to $14.

That was pretty heady stuff by long-term standards.

“Last year was fabulous. Guys could do no wrong,” said Dorothy Butz, owner of Westmoreland Fur Post in Latrobe.

The result has been a surge in participation.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission sold 19,251 resident fur-taker licenses in 2002. In 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, it sold 38,341.

Predator hunters need a fur-taker tag to target species like bobcats and foxes, and that's grown in popularity, so that may account for some of the increase. But there's no doubt that trapping is on the rise.

“My gosh, people who haven't trapped in 30 years are getting back into it,” said Theresa Siko, owner of T&T Fur Buyers in Latrobe. “And we're seeing people who have never done it before. Interest is way up.”

Economics are the reason, said Tom Haridsky, a furbearer biologist with the commission and a trapper.

“We're really in the middle of a fur boom. This is like the third year for that, and it's because pelt prices are up,” Hardisky said.

“There are not more animals out there. But there is much more interest in getting those animals, in taking those animals. That's the story behind all this interest in trapping. It's simply pelt price. Money is a motivator.”

Species that typically bring the best prices have especially been targeted.

People pursuing coyotes — which could include hunters — grew by almost 31 percent from 2011 to 2012. The number of people chasing red foxes grew by almost 21 percent, gray foxes by 15 percent and raccoons by 12 percent.

Those increases come on top of similarly large jumps between 2010 and 2011, so there are a lot more trappers out there than even two years ago, according to commission statistics.

All of those extra people in the woods, and all of the extra “trapnights” they accounted for, have produced big harvests.

The 2012 take of raccoons — which topped 210,000 — grew by 20 percent over 2011 and was the highest seen since 1996. Last season's take of 78,000-plus opossums was up by 57 percent and the highest since 1997. Fur-takers took a record 40,109 coyotes, too.

The take of red foxes held about even at 67,465, while the take of gray foxes (17,415), beaver (9,712) and skunks (7,329) decreased compared to 2011. In virtually all of those latter cases, last season's harvest was still comparable to the long-term average and up from just two years ago, sometimes significantly.

“They're really going after things,” Siko said.

How trappers will do this season —in terms of harvest and monetary rewards — remains to be seen.

Most of the fur taken in Pennsylvania and elsewhere ends up in China, which manufactures 80 percent of the world's fur garments for export to Russia, Europe and North America, according to North American Fur Auction. Demand is driven by everything from cold weather to fashion.

Nancy Daigneault, communications director for Toronto-based North American Fur Auctions, the “oldest and largest handler of wild furs in the world,” did not return a call seeking comment. But a “fur update” from the group predicted a drop in fur prices.

“As it looks right now, there will be a reduction in price levels for most furs, but on the positive side, this will attract new consumers that were unable to buy furs because of last year's high prices,” the update reads.

Furs that are less than top quality will take the biggest hit price-wise, it said. The “trim trade,” which utilizes raccoon and coyote fur primarily, should be strong, however.

Groups like the Pennsylvania Trappers Association will begin holding local fur sales and auctions around the state throughout this month. The group's “district 3” sale, for trappers in Allegheny, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties, for example, will be held Jan. 26 at the Washington County Fairgrounds.

North America Fur Auctions will hold the first of three international auctions Feb. 17-23.

That will go a long way toward establishing the market, Butz said. Trappers and fur buyers “will know more then” what to expect, she said.

“Every year, every season, something changes,” Siko said. “I'm sure people will want furs, as always, but it's just so hard to predict exactly what will happen.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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