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Trappers have eyes on August auction as a wild fur industry comeback

After COVID-19 forced the last remaining wild fur auction online, trappers are hoping a replacement auction in August will bring buyers back.

Spring auction, normally highlight of year, cancelled due to COVID-19

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)

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the last remaining wild fur auction online, trappers are hoping plans for an in-person auction in August will bring buyers back.

The North Bay-based Fur Harvesters Auction is the only place left where trappers can sell wild-caught fur in North America, and one of just a handful worldwide.

But their spring auction, set to be hosted in Toronto in March, was forced to cancel due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The auction house tried to move the auction online, but in the end saw just a fraction of their stock sold.

Mark Downey, the auction's president and CEO, estimated they sold just 30 per cent of their normal volume.

"Fur is a very … hands-on thing," he said. "You've got to look at it, appraise it, touch it, feel it."

Furs from the N.W.T.'s Genuine Mackenzie Valley Furs program are destined for the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, the last remaining wild fur auction in North America. (John Last/CBC)

Downey said while some low-cost items, like beaver and muskrat, sold in large quantities "sight unseen," many of Canada's most plentiful varieties failed to move at all.

"When it comes to the high end luxury items such as Canadian sables (marten), lynx, bobcats, fancy timberwolves — [high-priced] items — it's very difficult," Downey said, as most buyers will want to handle the fur before agreeing to a sale.

Marten, known as sable in the industry, is a staple of trappers' catch across the country, and especially in the Northwest Territories, where government buyers will pay a $65 advance on every pelt.

"It is uncommon to have the collection of marten and lynx remain unsold," Francois Rossouw, the biologist who oversees the territory's fur-buying program, wrote in an email.

Last season, the N.W.T. purchased $450,000 worth of furs, but just 27 per cent of that sold in the spring online auction.

Now, Downey said he has a "whole year's collection of sable" sitting in warehouses in North Bay, Winnipeg and Wisconsin — all full to the brim.

Downey said retail closures mean demand from international buyers is likely to be lower. (Fabian Bimmer/Reuters)

The auction house is preparing to sell that fur at an in-person auction with 20 to 30 trusted brokers —  expected to be mostly from Canada — in the last week of August. The location still hasn't been determined.

The glut of fur held back from spring will "definitely" have an impact on prices when they finally hit the market in August, Downey said. And that's not all.

"The retail stores, basically around the world, have been shut down," he said. "Macy's and Sachs in New York City, they're not selling anything."

"The companies that buy on their behalf, their orders are definitely going to be lower."

For trappers in the N.W.T., that drop in prices will hurt less than elsewhere. The Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur program pays trappers bonuses when pelts that sell over the advance, but trappers keep that advance even if they sell under.

Fur is a very ... hands on thing.- Mark Downey, CEO of Fur Harvesters Auction

"The Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur … program is designed to protect trappers from market downturns and unexpected events exactly like the present," reads a release sent to trappers from the program's directors.

"The current situation with COVID-19 is a good example of the program performing as it should, keeping trapping as a viable option at a time when employment opportunities in communities may be limited," Rossouw wrote to CBC.

"Financially the program can withstand these delays."

In those places where trappers can't rely on a guaranteed price from the government, trappers have had to adapt to fluctuating prices in other ways.

Francois Rossouw, a furbearer biologist with the N.W.T. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in his Yellowknife office. (John Last/CBC)

"Trappers have made themselves much more than commercial fur harvesters," said Bill Abercrombie, the president of the Alberta Trappers Association. "We've made ourselves educators about the land and about wildlife…. We are also a critical cog in the wheel in conservation and conservation research in this province."

Even with the delay getting to market, Abercrombie said trappers have still been able to get cash for their furs from intermediary buyers. He also said the good showing for beavers suggests demand for some wild furs may even be growing.

"I'll look forward to seeing what the demand is in August," he said.

For now, Downey said trappers across the country seem to be sticking together.

"They know what we're up against," he said. "We're doing our best to … get the stuff sold in a professional fashion to the highest price we can possibly sell it."

"Trappers are probably, of all the people in the world … the most self-sufficient. We'll get through this together."

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