North American fur prices vary by region – sometimes substantially – and if you’ve ever looked over fur price averages from the major auction houses, you may find yourself confused by all of the different terms, and wondering how fur in your area stacks up against the averages. I get questions like this all the time, including “what’s so special about Western bobcats that makes them worth $500?”, or “Coyotes are bigger in the Northeast, so how does it make sense that those little Western ‘yotes are worth more than twice as much?” Like most questions, these have answers, but they are often both simple and complicated at once. I’ll try to explain.
The very basis in a fur’s value is tied directly to what it’s going to be used for, and most fur consumed in the world is destined for the fashion and/or utility market. That means your hard-earned pelt will end up as part of a fancy coat in a rich person’s closet, worn a few times a year, or as a fashionable but necessary coat or hat used to keep warm and comfortable in freezing parts of the world. So because your ‘possum pelt is neither fashionable nor warming, it has virtually no value in the market. That’s the simple answer, but things can get pretty complex from there.
All other things being equal, size is usually an important factor determining the value of a fur pelt. That’s the simple part: larger pelts provide more material to use in a garment. So an extra large raccoon pelt will be worth quite a bit more than a medium of the same type.
Another important factor in fur value is its primeness. Furbearers grow thick fur coats to insulate their bodies against the cold weather in northern latitudes, and this thick fur has more value. It is softer, fuller and more dense, containing many more fine hairs per square inch of pelt. Fur pelts from southern parts of the U.S. are generally worth much less than those from the north simply because they don’t prime up. This also means that up north, fur that’s caught too early in the season, before the winter coat has grown in, has much less value. There are fur primeness charts available for different species in different parts of North America, and many government-regulated trapping seasons only start when the fur begins to prime. As with anything, there are some exceptions, like the ‘hatter’ market for beaver. A certain subset of the fur market uses beaver pelts to make felt hats. These pelts don’t need to be prime, and thus many southern or early-caught northern beaver pelts have value in this market even though they are not prime.
While size and primeness are general qualities that help determine a fur pelt’s value, its role in the fashion market is the overall driver of what fur is worth. This is particularly evident in value differences between species, and disparities among different pelts from animals within a species. Beaver used to be far and away the most valuable fur in the market because of their use in the popular felt top hats in the 1800’s. Mink fur coats were an important status symbol in America as recently as 50 years ago, and still are popular in some pockets of the U.S. and other parts of the world. One of the hottest items in the high-end fashion market is the spotted fur (black spots on a white background) found in the belly fur of bobcats. However, these cats with spotted bellies are only common in Western states like Montana, Wyoming and Nevada, and their pelts are currently averaging around $300-500 each. Meanwhile, bobcats from other parts of the country don’t have those spotted bellies and prime fur, and might only be worth 10-20% that of a Western cat.
Muskrat pelt prices are highly driven by fashion, and for a few years, Korea and China were competing for a limited supply of ‘rat pelts because of a new fashion trend in Korea that required muskrat belly fur. With the decline of the Chinese economy and some cooperation among furriers to more efficiently use the entire muskrat pelt (Koreans wanted the bellies, Chinese wanted the backs), prices have declined.
While the Russian and Chinese economies are currently depressed, impacting the value of many utility fur pelts like beaver and raccoon, fashion trends in other countries are creating some higher prices for a few specific items. Coyote pelts have been in great demand lately mainly due to their use as trim on the hoods of winter coats in the North American market. But there’s a certain coyote that works best for that purpose, and is just an overall better quality fur. Though coyotes are much bigger in the Northeast (they apparently bred with wolves on their way over), the smaller Western coyotes are much more valuable. Eastern coyotes have long, coarse guard hair, non-uniform color (usually darker), and just make a poorer quality pelt overall. The Western coyotes are pale in color, have more uniform guard hairs and a beautiful thick pelt when prime. They’re currently worth nearly three times as much as Eastern coyotes.
Don’t expect these values to be constant over time, though. Changing economic conditions and fashion trends can shift the fur market at any time. Many trappers remember the short booms in grey fox and otter fur prices a few years back that didn’t last.
Basic supply and demand affects fur prices, meaning that oftentimes rare or difficult to catch animals are worth more. Wolverines and wolves always command a high price at auction due to their limited quantities. They are also less vulnerable to wide swings in price levels, making them relatively stable income for trappers who can catch them.
The ranch fur industry can impact the price of wild fur to a certain extent. By volume, the ranch fur market produces far more fur each year than what trappers harvest in the wild. The bulk of this is in ranched mink and fox. Because they can control the size, color and type of pelts they produce through selective breeding and genetics, and harvest all animals when they are at their most prime, ranches produce pelts that are superior to wild fur. Ranch fur production is also much more responsive to price levels than wild fur. Oftentimes the strength of the ranch fur market is a good indicator of how the wild fur market will do in a given season. Interestingly, average wild fur prices of the two most commonly farmed species have remained quite stable over the past decade or two, while ranch prices have fluctuated a great deal.
At its most basic level, fur is as valuable as the market deems it, and things like size, color, primeness, fashion trends and international economics all play into this value. As trappers we can use this knowledge to identify target species, areas and times that maximize the value of the fur we produce and most efficiently utilize the renewable natural resource that is wild fur.