North America's wild fur auction resumes, hampered by COVID-19

The summer auction, targeted for an industry comeback, was kept to Canadian brokers, keeping prices and sales low.

Summer auction, targeted for industry comeback, was kept to Canadian brokers

Wolverine pelts are handled at the Fur Harvesters Auction in 2018. The auction is the last remaining place in North America to sell wild fur. (Submitted by Fur Harvesters Inc.)

It wasn't quite the comeback trappers were hoping for, but the August edition of Canada's last remaining wild fur auction showed signs of an industry willing to adapt to survive.

"It's a different world but, you know, you evolve or die," said Mark Downey, CEO of North Bay, Ont.-based Fur Harvesters Auction.

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.

But in March, COVID-19 travel restrictions forced the auction online, with disappointing results for many Canadian trappers. At the time, Downey estimated they sold just 30 per cent of their usual amount.

The last week in August was set aside for what Downey hoped would be a return to normal.

A rack of fox pelts on display in the Yellowknife offices of the Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur Program. The majority of most northern trappers' catch is marten, also called sable, which has failed to sell in high volumes at the last two auctions. (John Last/CBC)

But COVID-19 still lingers, and so do travel restrictions, which forced the auction to keep in-person bidding to Canadian brokers only.

"Instead of having, you know, say 250 buyers in the room we had 27," said Downey. "But we had 27 people that were competing against one another."

"It was, like, somewhat normal," he said.

Northern staples still not finding buyers

Downey said many of the brokers in the room were connected with bidding groups in China, where the garment industry is beginning to surge back to life after COVID-19 shutdowns.

But even with some international buyers back at the table, sales still have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

"Our logo [says] 'Welcome to North Bay, where the world comes to buy wild fur,'" said Downey. "It's really difficult to sell at the level we're used to when the world can't come."

While the exact figures are still being tabulated, Downey estimated that species typically destined for the North American market — coyote, timberwolf, and wolverine, for example — returned to pre-pandemic sales volumes, albeit, in some cases, at a reduced price.

It's a different world but, you know, you evolve or die.- Mark Downey, CEO of Fur Harvesters Auction

But items that typically go to the garment industries in Russia, South Korea, and China didn't fare as well.

That includes beaver and marten, or sable, what Yukon Trapping Association president Brian Melanson called the "bread and butter" of northern trappers.

The North Bay auction's catalogue listed some 58,000 sable pelts for sale. Of those, Downey estimates just 25 per cent sold.

The story is worse for beaver; 81,000 pelts were on the auction block, and Downey says just 10 per cent sold.

Brian Melanson sews up a beaver pelt in Whitehorse in this CBC file photo. Melanson said many trappers are turning to local markets while the international market is still impacted by COVID-19. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Trappers turn to local markets

For Melanson, who traps beaver and marten on a family trapline roughly 200 kilometres east of Mayo, Yukon, the pandemic-driven downward pressure on fur prices is no longer sustainable.

"I wouldn't say they've hit rock bottom, but they're not far from it," he said.

"The days of sending a beaver to North Bay and getting a $2 cheque back for it have to be done."

In the neighbouring Northwest Territories, the territory's Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur Program guarantees trappers advances that are often much higher than market rates — $65 for a marten, for instance, and $25 for a beaver.

But in Yukon, Melanson is hoping for a smaller-scale solution.

We've created a local marketplace for this fur.- Brian Melanson, president of Yukon Trappers Association

He said he's noticed the lack of an international market has more trappers selling to local artisans, who are able to craft "100 per cent pure Yukon products" from their wares.

"We've created a local marketplace for this fur," he said.

In March, the Yukon Trappers Association hosted a local fur market to connect trappers and buyers.

"A lot of those guys sold out of the products they brought down, and many of them regret not bringing more," he said.

Melanson said minimum prices set at that market — $30 for a beaver pelt, for instance — allow trappers to focus "more on quality … [and] less on quantity."

He said it's also encouraging more families to take up small-scale trapping as they take to the land to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Products on sale at the local fur market organized by the Yukon Trappers Association. Melanson said artisans are making '100 per cent pure Yukon products' using locally-trapped fur. (Jackie McKay/CBC)

Remaining product to be sold online

Downey has a bigger market to worry about. His warehouses are full of unsold merchandise from the past two auctions.

He's still "optimistic" that an online sale, running over the next few days, will see much of the unsold stock picked up by international buyers.

He's also still hoping the world returns to normal by the next auction date.

"We're … hoping by March, international flights will be able to resume and we'll be back to business as usual," he said.

"Trappers are survivors," he said, "so we'll be alright."