When a Minnesota coyote takes its final, fatal misstep into a snare or foot trap, its traveling days are over. But its coat, its luxurious pelt, the reason the trap was set, will log many hundreds, even thousands, of miles before it rests atop a head or around the neck of a biped. Along the way, the coyote’s skin will be scraped, stretched, dried, bought and sold several times, tanned and cut into strips to be sewn onto a jacket collar or into a hat.
The most difficult step in the process is the first one: trapping a coyote. Veteran Minnesota trapper Andy Shoemaker reports, “They are without a doubt the most intelligent of the dozen or so furbearers I trap. Make one mistake, like leave a tiny corner of a trap uncovered by sifted dirt, they’ll notice it and be 20 times harder to fool the next time.”
When a coyote is caught, the next step depends on the time and talent the trapper has to invest in the pelt. Some simply take the animal, skin and all, to a local fur dealer. Coyotes with body and skin still together are said to be “in the round” among fur traders. And they don’t command much money. “Maybe five bucks, if the hide looks good,” says Jon-Paul Rosenwald who with his dad, Jim, operates North Star Fur near Stillwater.
Rosenwald has a rule when he’s assessing a locally caught coyote: If it’s gray, don’t pay.
“When a coyote pelt looks gray, that means most of the outer guard hairs, which are tan, brown and black, are missing. Those are the hairs that give the coat depth and definition, making it desirable,” Rosenwald said.
When a trapper takes the time to skin out a coyote, the price rises to as much as $25. These hides are known as “green” among fur buyers.
The next steps in the process involve scraping every bit of flesh off the hide and stretching it on a board. In this condition, a pelt can bring $30 in this year’s market. Coyotes from North Dakota and Montana, whose fur is lighter in color than Minnesota animals, hence more desirable, can fetch up to $100 each. All fur buyers prefer to deal with pelts that are termed “raw,” that is, fleshed, stretched and dried. Pelts in this state are stable and can be bought, sold, stored and shipped without fear of corruption.
But putting a pelt into the raw state is a time-consuming task. Even an experienced trapper, skilled in the use of a fleshing tool, will invest up to two hours making his coyote skin clean, dry and marketable.
The market for coyotes and other furbearers is anyone who will buy them.
Hobby trappers often sell to small local fur traders. But trappers who have dozens or even hundreds of pelts may send them to the North American Fur Auction (NAFA) in Toronto. Twice a year, in February and May, weeklong auctions bring hundreds of corporate buyers from around the world and hundreds of thousands of pelts together in the same 150,000-square-foot facility.
At the auction, employing highly trained eyes and hands, buyers roam acres of display tables. Coyote pelts are scrutinized for size, color, shade, damage and primeness. Grades are noted for each group of pelts before the bidding begins.
Prices in the auction that just ended were high. The market is pushed up or down by weather, especially in Russia and China; the availability and price of ranch-raised fur; the world economy; fashion trends, and the demand resulting from all these factors.
If, for example, mink ranchers set their minimum bid prices high, buyers will often move toward wild fur. The fur market spiraled up this year because of China’s harsh winter, its coldest in 30 years. A rising market lifts the prices for all furbearers.
The lowly muskrat, for instance, was bringing just $3 a pelt in recent years. But when trapper Shoemaker, who lives in Washington County, watched the recent auction for his 300 muskrat pelts, he was delighted when they brought $11.32 apiece. Coyote pelts, meanwhile, were bid up into the $75 to $100 range.
Tanneries in China
The great majority of the 80,000 coyote pelts sold annually at the NAFA auctions are headed to China. There, in state-of-the-art tanneries, the hides will be finished and sold again, perhaps to fur-dealer middle men who may invest in thousands of pelts. Their clients, in turn, will be enterprises that cut the pelts into strips.
Finally, the well-traveled Minnesota coyote pelt, now in pieces, will be sold to mostly Chinese clothing manufacturers and sewn as trim onto coats and jacket collars and hoods.
The final leg of the journey is to high-fashion retailers in China, Russia, South Korea, Western Europe and the United States who hope consumers will be eager to add the warmth and beauty of coyote fur to their wardrobes.