and selling animals
is part of a great Illinois tradition
House is out the door by 3 a.m. in the winter months. He departs
each morning to patrol some 30 farms around Princeville, his
hometown just north of Peoria, for raccoon. He surveys his
traps for four hours each morning, then heads to the local
high school to teach agriculture. Each year, he says, he usually
catches between 100 and 150 raccoons. In 1997, a great year
for him, he caught 350.
enjoys the sport of fur trapping. But after a few weeks of
trudging around in the cold and snow during the trapping season,
which runs from early November to mid- January, it takes more
than fun to motivate him: He admits he can use the money.
Only half-jokingly, he remarks that his catch during the 1997
season helped finance his wedding.
thousands of trappers in Illinois, and throughout North America
for that matter, House catches raccoons and other such animals
and sells their pelts to supplement his income. The fur is
removed, treated and, in most cases, shipped abroad to garment
manufacturers in Greece. The garments then are sold to fur-lovers
in countries such as Russia and China.
this state, the fur trades roots run deep. When 17th
century French voyageurs explored the Illinois Country, they
were motivated by the pursuit of wealth, and the dominant
business was harvesting and selling the fur of beaver, fox,
muskrat and other wild animals. So Joe Houses efforts
to raise a bit of extra cash by trapping native animals is
part of a great Illinois tradition.
course, this states contemporary fur trade is not nearly
as lucrative as it was. But fur hunters and trappers still
collect raccoon and muskrat pelts. To a lesser extent, they
also harvest beaver, mink, weasel, opossum, coyote and varieties
its no longer thriving, the Illinois market appears
to be making a comeback. During the season beginning in 2000,
the total number of pelts sold by furtakers was up 13 percent
to 117,554 from the 1999 season, and the total
value of those pelts increased 63 percent to $682,176, according
to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
does not include those animals that were caught with a special
nuisance abatement permit. Under a natural resources
department rule, such animals cant be sold for a profit;
they must be released or destroyed.
Bluett, a wildlife biologist with the department, says, If
you let them keep the pelt, our feeling is there might be
some temptation, instead of setting the trap in the attic
or at an access point, that you set your trap next to the
bird feeder and catch 72 squirrels or 33 raccoons.
for the animals collected for sale, statistics on the 2001
season were not available in mid-June. But House and other
observers say the season was consistent with, if not better
than, the 2000 season.
a lot of optimism out there that prices cant stay at
the low levels they were, House says. Fur prices
have gone up, but theyre nowhere near what they were
in the late 70s or early 80s. But they still are
at a level where its starting to interest a few people
to look back into it.
wild fur trade in Illinois peaked in the late 1970s and early
1980s and has dwindled since, with bursts in the mid-1980s
and late-1990s. In the 1978 season, the average raccoon pelt
sold for $27.25. The following year, the average beaver pelt
went for $14.40, while muskrat sold for an average of $6.35
in recent years, as well as the number of animals harvested,
are far down from those figures. Raccoon pelts sold for $6.30
in 2000, while beaver sold for $9.80 and muskrat sold for
$2.45. Yet statistics for the 2000 season show prices improved
over the previous two years, and fur traders are hopeful that
climb will continue.
the $6.30 commanded by the pelt of an average raccoon in the
2000 season. While thats down 77 percent from the 1978
seasons $27.25, its up 50 percent from the $4.20
in the 1999 season.
winter, that upward trend continued. Greg Groenewold, president
of Groenewold Fur and Wool Co. in Forreston, one of the Midwests
largest fur buyers, estimates raccoon pelts the states
top fur export went for 25 percent to 30 percent more
in 2001 than in 2000. I think fur is a lot more in vogue
than it was, he says.
Kelley, a Hudson-based trapper and president of the Illinois
Trappers Association, is cautiously optimistic. Its
kind of been an up and down situation for several years,
he says. This last year we saw higher prices and a little
more interest, and we might see that again this year.
fur harvest in Illinois corresponds to the price paid for
each pelt. As prices go up, fur traders say, more furtakers
hunt or trap the animals. Then again, furtakers can be impatient.
had a couple of years in the last eight or 10 years where
the prices come up one year. Youd have more interest
generated the following year and yet the prices didnt
continue to increase, if not drop back a little bit, and people
would drop by the wayside again, Kelley says.
are several reasons for the fluctuation in the number of animals
harvested and in the prices they command, not the least of
which is demand. That factor, half the equation in any industry,
is especially unpredictable in fur trading.
the United States, animal rights groups such as People for
the Ethical Treatment of Animals have helped limit demand
for fur with aggressive campaigns portraying fur trapping
as cruel to animals. These activists have been known to attack
fur coats, on the backs of pedestrians, with spray paint.
which imports the bulk of American raccoon pelts, has in recent
years been economically unstable. During the fur harvest following
the collapse of that countrys currency in 1998, the
number of raccoon pelts harvested in Illinois dropped 41 percent,
to 163,320 from 278,680 in 1997. At the same time, the average
price of each pelt dropped 53 percent, from $10.50 to $4.90.
also are trends in fashion, perhaps the most whimsical factor
of all. Fashion swings are like mens ties
one year its narrow, the next year its wide. We
run into all those factors, says Bob McQuay, executive
director of the Wild Fur Shippers Council at the Ontario-based
North American Fur Auctions, the largest fur auction house
in North America.
also can affect the fur trade, as cold winter temperatures
and heavy snowfall can slow the efforts of hunters and trappers.
there are reasons to expect the fur trade to rebound. The
Russian economy is recovering. The voices of anti-fur activists
are quieting or, at the least, failing to resonate with consumers,
fur traders contend. And fur may be becoming more fashionable.
is a noticeable increase in the demand for fur in the [fashion
show] runways, and therefore theres a higher price being
paid for most of the species, and therefore there is more
interest in the production side from the trapping community,
argues fur is becoming more stylish for several reasons. Wild
fur can be more attractive to designers than fur from animals
raised on a farm because of its variety in textures and styles.
Young designers are beginning to treat fur more as a fabric,
incorporating it into garments with other fabrics, rather
than using straight fur. And designers are manipulating fur
by coloring or trimming it to make it natty and more comfortable
to wear in the summer.
guess is everything is looking pretty good for fur right now,
and usually these cycles last a while, McQuay says.
theres the supply side of the equation. And, at least
in Illinois, there are few complaints about an inadequate
population of raccoon, beaver and other wild animals.
beaver were thought to be extinct in Illinois in the early
1900s due to hunting and trapping, those rodents are considered
by the natural resources department to be common throughout
the state. While fewer beavers were harvested in 2000 than
1999, the average price for each pelt increased almost 20
percent, from $8.20 to $9.80.
the top export, are considered by the natural resources department
to be abundant, as many homeowners who get their garbage cans
raided and their attics invaded surely would testify.
on the other hand, are disappearing from this state, according
to fur traders, and that trend is reflected in the dramatic
decrease in pelts collected by trappers. In 1979, there were
460,674 muskrat harvested. By 2000, that number had dropped
96 percent, to 17,894.
are different theories on why muskrat have disappeared. But
most observers agree that the animals natural habitat
aquatic areas such as marshes is depleted as
wetlands are drained and farmers install more efficient water
drainage systems to remove water more quickly from their fields.
in hydrology cause their numbers to go down, says Bluett,
the wildlife biologist. Youre keeping that water
from collecting or ponding; you dont get marshes where
you used to get marshes.
says a department study conducted 10 years ago debunked one
popular theory on the muskrats fate that the
animals are dying from ingesting agricultural pesticides.
The study, he says, failed to detect pesticides in tested
any rate, harvest numbers and prices generally are up. And
furtakers want more.
lot of people feel that this might be the turnaround, that
we might see a steady increase, says House, the Princeville
trapper. They havent hit the 97 levels yet
[the last burst in raccoon price], but theyre getting
there and thats what people are hoping.
Issues, July/August 2002
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