Yellowknife trapper says he's finding new ways to sell furs as January auction gets pushed to April

The fur industry is seemingly off to a dismal start as the planned January Fur Harvesters Auction, based in North Bay, Ont., has been postponed to the spring due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The delay follows a disappointing turnout during its restricted summer fur auction held in August

A file photo of a rack of fox pelts on display in the Yellowknife offices of Francois Rossouw, a furbearer biologist with the N.W.T. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. (John Last/CBC)

Nathan Kogiak, a trapper based in Yellowknife, normally has promising returns for the furs he sells, but this year, he's had to rethink how he goes about selling them off.

The fur industry is seemingly off to a dismal start as the planned January Fur Harvesters Auction, based in North Bay, Ont., has been postponed to the spring due to COVID-19 restrictions.

It follows a disappointing turnout during its summer fur auction held in August, which forced the auction to keep in-person bidding to Canadian brokers only. The rest was online.

"It was terrible," Kogiak said. "The results were super low, all the high end pelts didn't sell."

He said he had about 80 to 100 pelts to sell at the summer auction, but managed to sell less than 20, whereas in the past, Kogiak says he's been able to sell over 200 pelts.

Kogiak wasn't alone in having an unsuccessful auction last year.

Mark Downey, CEO of the Fur Harvesters Auction, says the restricted summer auction only sold about 30 per cent of its usual amount. That's partly because fur is best sold in person, where the buyer can feel and see the pelts for sale up close.

"Our slogan [has] always been, 'North Bay, where the world comes to buy wild fur,' Downey said.

"Well, you can't have an auction when the world can't come."

Wolverine pelts with Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur tags are handled at the 2018 Fur Harvesters Inc. auction in North Bay, Ontario. (Submitted by Fur Harvesters Inc.)

He says the January sale would have been used to help trappers sell stock from last year, rather than freshly caught animal pelts.

Downey's auction house is the last remaining place in North America where trappers can sell wild-caught fur. It's also one of few places worldwide to do so.

New way to sell

Kogiak says the lower sales hasn't changed the way he traps — he still sets up a 52-kilometre trapping line and catches the same amount of animals as any other year — but the way he sells the furs is changing.

For one, he says he's going to send off the pelts to be commercially tanned first and then will sell the pelts privately. The tanning is for consumer convenience, he explained, because buyers will be able to use the pelts right away.

But that will be an extra cost for Kogiak.

He says if he manages to sell them privately, he'll likely be able to recoup that money. It also takes more time to send them out to get tanned — around three to six months or even a year depending on the tannery it's sent to.

Government aide program

But being in the N.W.T., Kogiak, who also works a full time job, says he's less hard pressed to get his pelts sold — and earn income from them — compared to trappers in other jurisdictions.

That's partly because the N.W.T. government has a program where trappers like Kogiak can sell his pelts to the territory's department of Environment and Natural Resources and receive a guaranteed amount.

Furs sold using the N.W.T.'s Genuine Mackenzie Valley Furs program are guaranteed a set price from the territory's department of Environment and Natural Resources. (John Last/CBC)

Under that program, for example, Kogiak says he can get $400 per wolf pelt and $200 per wolverine pelt, while beaver pelts will make $25.

"That actually helps me pay some of the expenses that I incur," he said. "But I know that program's only in the N.W.T. So every other trapper outside the N.W.T. has to eat all those costs."

Still, he added that it's "disheartening" to lose money on quality pelts that normally sell for much more.

He says he likes to hold some of his pelts for private sales where he can make much more than what he'd make with the government's guaranteed price and the auction house. 

Future auction

Downey, with the auction house, says the next auction is set for April 9-13 and that it's possible it could be postponed too if the COVID-19 situation doesn't improve.

"International buyers are quite understanding," he said, since they need goods to keep their factories going.

Downey says some international buyers may give their orders to the brokers that can attend, and he's optimistic that buyers are becoming more comfortable with the auction's online platform.

"We took literally tens of thousands of pictures of every single lot of fur and that's on our online platform, and they'll be able to bid on that if it comes to that," Downey said.

Downey added he's optimistic the industry overall remains sturdy. 

"The interest in the fur industry is still very, very strong. It's just the fact … the situation is stymied by the fact that international travel can't happen," Downey said.

"We're still in great shape and the market continues to be thriving.… But in order to get the best price for the trapper, the open venue, to have it in front of all the buyers to compete in an aggressive roomful of international buyers, is the best."

As for Kogiak, he says he'll be monitoring how the fur market is in the coming months to decide whether he'll sell his furs — which he says are top grade — at the spring auction.

"I'm not holding my breath that it's going to be good," he said. "Right now I'm just a little apprehensive about the auction house."

With files from Lawrence Nayally