“Byproducts” of the Fur Market
The fur market in the U.S. waxes and wanes due to many factors. In general, prices that U.S. fur harvesters can expect to receive for their pelts are largely tied to the national economies of several countries, namely Russia and China. In turn, the economies of these countries are profoundly affected by factors such as the strength of their currencies against other foreign money, large-scale weather patterns, strife in certain parts of the world, etc. Essentially, the fur market is quite complex and can be very confusing for fur harvesters to fully understand, let alone navigate in order to maximize their profits. In recent years, a softening of the economies in Russia and China has led to less disposable income among the Russian and Chinese populace, which has resulted in depressed fur demand and, subsequently, lower prices. However, for those trappers and hunters hardy enough to withstand these market swings, there are other ways to derive value from harvesting fur.
One of the main secondary markets related to fur harvest can be characterized as the “byproduct” market. As opposed to the primary market of fur pelts commonly associated with trapping and fur hunting, this market encompasses items such as beaver castor, skunk essence, and the urine and glands of various species, among others, that many industries utilize and value. Even when fur prices are low, industrious hunters and trappers can access the byproduct market in order to make their activities at least a “break-even” proposition. For the most part, this market demands that fur harvesters remove and prepare for sale glands and bodily fluids that can be used in a variety of products.
To provide some insight, I corresponded with Mike Wilhite, who is Editor and writes the fur market report for one of the leading trapping magazines, Trapper’s Post. The first example of a valuable fur byproduct Wilhite proffered is beaver castor. For those not familiar with beaver castor, it is a yellowish secretion from the castor sacs of adult North American beavers (Castor canadensis). Adult beavers have two castor sacs, located under the skin near the base of the tail. Beavers exude castor and urine to mark their territory and for scent communication with other beavers. Wilhite related that castor is primarily used by the perfume industry and, to a much lesser extent, as a food additive. He wrote that castor is used as a base in many men’s and women’s fragrances and imparts a “leathery” odor. Wilhite also indicated that there is a castor market with India and Pakistan, though exactly what those countries use castor for is somewhat nebulous. As an interesting aside, a close friend of mine bought some whiskey from a Vermont-based distiller that used beaver castor in their libation. I’ve never tasted it, but he admits it isn’t really his favorite!
Currently, beaver castor is a high-value byproduct, with Wilhite stating that “good” castor can sell for $60 to $70 per pound. As he indicated, this often is far more valuable than the pelts, themselves, in the current market climate. You might be wondering how many beavers one would have to catch to make a pound of castor. He wrote that it would typically take the fresh castor from 6 to 10 beavers to get one pound of dried castor. However, he also said that this number could be cut nearly in half if one was catching big, “spring” beavers (beaver trapping season usually is one of the last seasons to end in the spring, so many trappers find themselves able to make catches of large beaver at that time of year). Wilhite speculated that as long as beaver pelt prices remain low castor prices will stay high and demand will be heavy for this item. His reasoning behind this is a simple matter of supply and demand: the lower the fur prices, the less beaver that will be trapped. The less beaver trapped, the higher the demand for the limited supply of castor.
Wilhite also touched briefly on other byproducts that can be valuable in today’s market. He mentioned that skunk essence (the exudate from the skunk’s anal scent glands), mink musk glands, canine glands and the like, are all saleable. For the most part, he indicated these items are used by the trapping and hunting scent and lure industries. He noted that value of these items tends to fluctuate quite a bit, thus making current price quotes a dicey prospect. However, he did indicate that selling these byproducts can be very lucrative for the fur harvesters willing to take the time to acquire them. He also mentioned that various animal urines are used in the scent/lure industry, although he noted that these typically are harvested from pen-raised animals as opposed to being gleaned from harvested animals. That being said, it is not uncommon for fur harvesters already involved in marketing fur byproducts to also harvest urine, either for use in preparing their own baits and lures or for sale to others for similar uses.
As a follow-up to my correspondence with Wilhite, I contacted Kaatz Bros. Lures from Savanna, Illinois, to see just what kind of prices some of these items are currently bringing. Kyle Kaatz, who owns and operates Kaatz Bros. with his younger brother, Kellen, sent me a current price list and, as has been suggested in this article, many of these fur harvesting byproducts are quite valuable. For example, Kaatz Bros. is currently paying $55 per pound for dried beaver castor. Animal glands also are bringing good prices, with muskrat, mink, otter, badger, bobcat and various canine glands returning prices of $100 to $125 per gallon. Skunk essence, as noted, often is far more valuable from a monetary perspective than are the pelts; Kaatz Bros. is paying $18 per ounce for this item.
My correspondence with these two professional fur harvesters was enlightening, as it highlighted the nature of the “waste nothing” ethic I truly believe most outdoor enthusiasts espouse. With fur prices that have been depressed for at least half a decade, many fur harvesters are maximizing their returns by utilizing the fur byproducts market. This seems to be a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future among these resourceful trappers and hunters.
Tim Kelley is a district wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife Resources and based in the Havana office.
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