ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS COMMENTARY, DECEMBER 9, 2002

Boom in Fur Sales Boost Demand, Prices for Wild Game Pelts

ANCHORAGE, Alaska: With fur sales strong and fur prices rising, Akiachak trapper Brian Latham has every reason to be smiling about his season - if only winter would begin.

"It's 40 degrees and sprinkling," he said late last week from his home on the lower Kuskokwim River near Bethel. The warm winter is making the ice soft and the travel treacherous.

The unusual weather is balanced, however, by the best fur prices in years, making it worthwhile for Latham to keep setting traps and snares for red fox, river otter, lynx, mink and other fur bearers. It's not like the heyday of the 1970s, Latham said, but prices have improved steadily the past several years and the upward trend is continuing.

The New York Times reported last week that fur sales are booming in New York City, Dallas and other fashion centers, in spite of the tepid U.S. economy and continued protests by animal rights groups. The year is poised to set new records for domestic sales, topping the highs set in the extravagant 1990s.

"We're having a banner year," said Perry Green of David Green Master Furrier in Anchorage. "People are bringing me in pictures from Vogue (magazine) and asking can I make it. We're getting tremendous calls from all over the U.S. saying, 'Whattya got?' "

Alaska has always had a strong fur-buying tradition, merchants say, though Europe is the real capital for fur fashion. But Asian markets are at least partly responsible for surging sales, said Irwin Goldberg, owner of H.E. Goldberg and Co., a Seattle-based company that buys and sells raw pelts.

"The fur industry in this country is good, but the main markets are in Russia, Korea and China," Goldberg said. "Right now, anybody who can get their hands on land otter are going to be extremely happy because the Chinese are vowing to buy all they can get."

River otter pelts that sold for an average of $60 to $80 apiece in recent years are commanding $100 or more this winter, he said. China's small but growing upper class is demonstrating its newfound wealth by buying fur, Goldberg said.

"The same in South Korea. They've developed a wealthy class that is fur-conscious," Goldberg said.

Russia, too, has not only an affluent upper class but the cold weather that traditionally drives fur sales.

"Almost everybody (in Russia) has been raised with the idea that it's essential to have something made of fur on your head or your back," Goldberg said, and now that more can afford furs, they're buying.

Fur trim is a particularly hot item right now, Goldberg said.

"A slip around the sleeves, down the front, scarves of artificial fur - it does give the feeling that fur is in spades," he said. "It's being picked up on by women of all ages. They have to have some kind of trimming."

Red fox is one of the more popular trim furs, according to several buyers, and Alaska prices reflect the increased interest. Latham said he remembers getting $100 for fox pelts in the late 1970s. The price dropped as low as $11 a decade later, he said, after animal rights activists took their opposition to trapping public and fur consumption plummeted. This year, Latham said, the price is up to $40.

Lynx and marten demand is also up, while wolf and wolverine prices remain strong.

Mink and fox ranching has taken its toll on fur prices, Latham said. Minks that used to bring him $90 apiece are now worth less than $20, and sheared, ranch-raised minks have reduced beaver pelt values by half.

Luckily, said Keith Curtis, owner of Arctic Midnight Furs, "you can't ranch wolves and can't ranch wolverines."

Those two species are the most valuable animals trapped in Alaska and together make up as much as half the total value of the trapping industry. Arctic wolf pelts, with their long, silky hair, can fetch more than $400 each, though the average price paid for the 1,500 or so wolves taken every year in Alaska was closer to $225, according to the most recent figures available from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The average wolverine pelt is worth slightly more, about $250.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is charged with making sure stocks of fur-bearing animals remain healthy, regardless of what the market is doing, said Howard Golden, who manages trapping in south-central and southwestern Alaska for Fish and Game.

A few species, such as lynx, go through dramatic population swings. When biologists see signs of an impending decline, they close the season for a few years to let the stock rebound, Golden said. For most other animals, trappers are limited by the weather or the economics of the business.

Latham said he has focused on wolf trapping the past few years because wolves the most valuable animals he can find. With higher prices being offered for fox, marten and other animals this year, he'll expand his efforts if the weather permits.

See also:

Thank You Mr. Sevin, Sir; Memories of a Bayou Trapper and Otter Conservationist By Tom Krause, editor, The American Trapper. (May 2001)


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