LIMINGTON, Maine – Brian Cogill pulls on a green hoodie, slips on his hip waders, dons the hat made from a beaver he caught himself and drives out into the snowy woods in search of his quarry.
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Tall, husky, barrel-chested, with a bushy auburn beard and a rosy complexion, he tromps through the forest to check traps capable of killing an animal within five minutes. Stepping onto a frozen pond, he chips through 4 inches of ice, reaches into the icy water and pulls out a 45-pound beaver.
Five years ago, its pelt would have fetched $50. These days, it will likely yield half that.
Economic forces including market slowdowns in big fur-buying countries like Russia, China and South Korea, as well as a continuing trend toward distaste for fur as a result of animal welfare concerns, make Cogill among a dwindling number of trappers catching fur-bearing beasts in the wild.
"I love trapping, don't get me wrong, but I'm not going to trap something for nothing," Cogill said. "If there's no market for it, I'd have to sit on it. There are warehouses full of fur right now, and no one buying."
The tough market has driven some of his peers to pull up their traps, said Cogill, president of the Maine Trappers Association.
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The U.S. has 160,000 to 250,000 wild-fur trappers, industry experts said. They're found around the country, not just in snowy northern and mountainous states.
In Maine, the number of trappers is down about 30 percent from the early 1980s, when there were about 5,000, Cogill said.
Prices of beaver and muskrat pelts are down about 30 percent from a year ago, with muskrat dipping to below $6, while mink are down about 40 percent from five years ago, said Mark Downey, CEO of Fur Harvesters Auction Inc., an auction that trades solely in wild fur, as opposed to farmed fur. Fur Harvesters didn't sell raccoon pelts at a Jan. 22 auction in Ontario because the international demand has dried up.
Russia is importing less fur because of money woes, including economic sanctions and the low value of the ruble. Russia also does its own trapping, but the vast, chilly country is typically dependent on American exports to satisfy its huge demand, said Dave Hastings, editor of Fur Taker Magazine and the chairman of the National Trappers Association/Fur Takers of America Alliance.
The fur coats, hats and collars that Russian buyers still love often come from China, which has rendered them into clothing from undressed pelts that it, in turn, imported from the U.S.
About a quarter or less of the worldwide fur market is for wild fur, industry experts said, so the work of trappers like Cogill is a piece of the garment business that consumers rarely think about, let alone see.
The trappers set devices that snare and kill the animals, and many trappers skin, stretch and dry the carcass themselves. Often, they then sell skins — the term used within the industry instead of pelts — to a broker, who will ship them for auction, with some of the largest auctions in Canada. That's where speculators, tanners, manufacturers and more brokers can buy them before they are turned into clothing.
The whole process takes about 12 to 15 months, Cogill said.
U.S. trappers have weathered difficulties in the past, including in the late 1980s after the stock market crash, the fickle nature of fur buyers and the impact of animal welfare campaigns, said Hastings and others in the industry.
Many if not most trappers don't make it their full-time work because it's time-consuming and not very lucrative, said National Trappers Association spokesman Dave Linkhart, a trapper from Xenia, Ohio. A soft fur market like the current one could mean a trapper gets no more than $3,000 for the pelts of 600 animals in a span of three months, he said.
Maine's Cogill pays his bills this time of year by also driving a snowplow.
The fur industry has also experienced a slow but noticeable decline in acceptability in the U.S. in recent years. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of respondents thought buying and wearing clothing made of fur was morally acceptable, a decline of 5 points from 10 years earlier.
Some delight at the industry's decline. Mollie Matteson, senior scientist with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, said the reduction in trapping will mean less chance that imperiled, non-target species will be caught in traps.
The industry is looking on the bright side, hoping that China's difficulties are short-lived. The country's expanding middle class is creating more of a market, said Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Fur Information Council of America. The soft market also means retail fur prices are down in the U.S., he said.