MOUNTAIN HOME • Every January and March, local trappers lug their coyote, raccoon and muskrat pelts to the Idaho Trappers Association’s semi-silent auction, selling to fur buyers and going home with money in their pockets.
This year is different. The fur market is up, and the ITA is bypassing the fur buyers and instead shipping pelts directly to the North American Fur Auction in Canada, wagering that trappers can make more money on the floor of an international auction house.
Trappers will have to wait longer for their money, receiving full payment after their fur sells at auction in mid-February, but the checks are likely to be bigger — even with the 9 percent to 11 percent cut NAFA takes. NAFA fur prices were double the prices fur buyers were offering last year, said ITA President Patrick Carney.
Carney started trapping muskrats when he was a kid, selling the pelts to fur buyers and using the money to buy Christmas presents. In his early 20s, Carney started selling fur directly to the auction house, cutting out the middlemen.
“I can’t stand the thought that I do all the work, and I take all the risk and all the exposure, and a fur buyer comes in and makes as much money or more than me,” Carney said. “I’m not buying into that program.”
Carney, now in his 50s, has watched the price of fur at NAFA auctions rise along with increased demand in China and Russia during the past few years. But the fur buyers, who often consign fur at NAFA auctions after buying it from trappers, were not making higher bids for the fur at pace with the rising NAFA prices, he said.
It didn’t make financial sense, Carney said, to package fur in NAFA bags for the highest bidders at the ITA auction if trappers could use the same bags to ship fur directly to NAFA and potentially make twice the money.
“What we’ve done is just cut (the fur buyers) out of the picture,” Carney said.
Malta fur buyer Kreg Koelling said the ITA’s decision to work directly with NAFA has not really affected his business. The co-owner of American Hide and Fur Co. said the ITA auction was one of the smaller in the region, and winter weekends are packed with fur auctions in the western states.
The advantages of selling directly to a fur buyer, he said, are that trappers have their checks in hand and the buyer assumes the risk of selling the fur at auction. The buyer has an idea of what is in demand, often fulfilling large orders for existing customers.
Carney isn’t worried about the fur selling at NAFA. Last year, NAFA sold 100 percent of its fur, he said. It was a boom year for the fur industry.
But Koelling is expecting a more normal year for the fur market. It’s been a mild winter both in China and Russia, which doesn’t inspire people to buy fur, he said. Plus, the retail price is high this year because fur fetched such a high price last year. He expects the market to be down from last year — a normal instead of a boom year.
“The odds are, in a normal year, (trappers) are not going to sell all their goods and sometimes the prices aren’t what they expected,” he said. “There’s probably going to be some guys that like it and stay with it, and there’s probably going to be some guys who go back to selling to the fur buyer.”
At last year’s January ITA auction, the average high bid for a coyote pelt from fur buyers was $39.69, according to the ITA Fur Sale Archives. A month later at the NAFA auction, “heavy” coyote fur went for an average $93.98, according to a NAFA report. Red fox fetched an average bid of $35.26 at the ITA auction and $65.78 at NAFA.
Pine marten pelts, which are used to make those iconic Russian hats, were going for about $62 at the ITA auction last March. Carney said he thought the price was too low and decided to hold onto his pine martens and ship to NAFA instead, where they sold for an average $118.
NAFA pays trappers an advance of about half the price it expects to get at auction. After the fur sells, NAFA sends a second check for the remainder of the sale price, minus a 9 percent to 11 percent commission.
Brian McMillan, NAFA vice president for wild fur operations, said the goal is always to sell 100 percent of the fur, like last year, but it’s unclear whether that will happen at the upcoming February auction.
“It’s going to be down from last year, probably across the board,” he said. “Retail is soft — you’re definitely going to see a decrease in the price of ranch mink, and it’s probably going to affect all the wild fur too.”
Fur that doesn’t sell in February will be held until the next auction in the spring, he said.
The next ITA-NAFA Fur Day, where trappers can bring fur to ship to NAFA, will be March 8 in Mountain Home.