Joe 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.
House 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.
Like 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.
In this state, the fur trade’s 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 House’s efforts to raise a bit of extra cash by trapping native animals is part of a great Illinois tradition.
Of course, this state’s 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 of fox.
Though it’s 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.
This does not include those animals that were caught with a special “nuisance” abatement permit. Under a natural resources department rule, such animals can’t be sold for a profit; they must be released or destroyed.
Bob 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.”
As 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.
“There’s a lot of optimism out there that prices can’t stay at the low levels they were,” House says. “Fur prices have gone up, but they’re nowhere near what they were in the late ’70s or early ’80s. But they still are at a level where it’s starting to interest a few people to look back into it.”
The 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 per pelt.
Prices 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.
Take the $6.30 commanded by the pelt of an average raccoon in the 2000 season. While that’s down 77 percent from the 1978 season’s $27.25, it’s up 50 percent from the $4.20 in the 1999 season.
Last winter, that upward trend continued. Greg Groenewold, president of Groenewold Fur and Wool Co. in Forreston, one of the Midwest’s largest fur buyers, estimates raccoon pelts — the state’s 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.
Paul Kelley, a Hudson-based trapper and president of the Illinois Trappers Association, is cautiously optimistic. “It’s 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.”
The 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.
“We’ve had a couple of years in the last eight or 10 years where the prices come up one year. You’d have more interest generated the following year and yet the prices didn’t continue to increase, if not drop back a little bit, and people would drop by the wayside again,” Kelley says.
There 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.
In 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.
Russia, which imports the bulk of American raccoon pelts, has in recent years been economically unstable. During the fur harvest following the collapse of that country’s 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.
There also are trends in fashion, perhaps the most whimsical factor of all. “Fashion swings are like men’s ties — one year it’s narrow, the next year it’s 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.
Weather also can affect the fur trade, as cold winter temperatures and heavy snowfall can slow the efforts of hunters and trappers.
Yet 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.
“There is a noticeable increase in the demand for fur in the [fashion show] runways, and therefore there’s a higher price being paid for most of the species, and therefore there is more interest in the production side from the trapping community,” McQuay says.
He 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.
“My guess is everything is looking pretty good for fur right now, and usually these cycles last a while,” McQuay says.
Then there’s 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.
Though 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.
Raccoon, 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.
Muskrat, 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.
There are different theories on why muskrat have disappeared. But most observers agree that the animal’s 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.
“Changes in hydrology cause their numbers to go down,” says Bluett, the wildlife biologist. “You’re keeping that water from collecting or ponding; you don’t get marshes where you used to get marshes.”
Bluett says a department study conducted 10 years ago debunked one popular theory on the muskrat’s fate — that the animals are dying from ingesting agricultural pesticides. The study, he says, failed to detect pesticides in tested muskrat.
At any rate, harvest numbers and prices generally are up. And furtakers want more.
“A lot of people feel that this might be the turnaround, that we might see a steady increase,” says House, the Princeville trapper. “They haven’t hit the ’97 levels yet [the last burst in raccoon price], but they’re getting there and that’s what people are hoping.”
Illinois Issues, July/August 2002