June 15, 2009

Growing Demand Puts A Premium Price On Bobcat Furs

In up-and-coming industrial nations like China and Russia, growing upper-middle classes have sparked a boom in demand for a number of luxury items.  One of the newest fads "” opulent fur coats made of bobcat pelts "” has triggered fears amongst environmentalists that the elusive cats may become victims of over-trapping as the price for their furs soar in response to exploding demand.

A single bobcat hide can now command a market price of up to $550, a reward that has ushered in a tripling in less than five years of the number of cats trapped each year in the U.S.

In 2006, almost 50,000 bobcats were killed for their pelts "” a worryingly high number according to wildlife officials who say they have no way of accurately counting the population sizes of the stealthy, reclusive cats and thus no way of gauging what constitutes sustainable levels of trapping.

Dave Pauli of the Humane Society says that these numbers ought to put scientists on guard.

"These bobcat harvest numbers should be a red flag to tell biologists that economics and fashion trends may be negatively impacting a species," said Pauli.

According to Brian MacMillan, vice president of the U.S. division of North American Fur Auctions, the soft, spotted bobcat pelts are currently pulling down higher prices than any other specie of North American animal.

While domestic demand for swanky coats and hats made from the luxurious fur has remained more or less static, overseas fashion trends have created a seemingly insatiable export market.

"The primary market is with Russia, but they're also going to China, Hong Kong and Italy," explained MacMillan.

"It's one of the hottest furs today," he added.  "It's definitely a high-fashion piece."

Still, Joel Blakeslee, president of the Nevada Trappers Association, isn't too disturbed by all the hubbub about over-trapping.  He says that most of the trappers in his organization are lucky if they earn $2,000 a year from the small, hard-to-capture cats.

"I don't think bobcats are something to be all that concerned about," he said. "It's not like we're talking about something rare and endangered."

And a number of federal statistics corroborate his aloofness.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are somewhere between 1.4 and 2.6 million bobcats across the U.S., with indigenous populations in every state but Alaska, Delaware and Hawaii.  Moreover, the number of pelts exported from the U.S. plummeted from 49,700 to 31,680 between 2006 and 2007, the most recent year for which official figures are available.

In some regions of the country state and federal wildlife officials have actually had to trap and kill the wildcats where they are too numerous and pester local residents by rummaging through garbage or attacking small pets.

"We're very confident in the state management of the species," said Craig Hoover of the Agriculture Department's Wildlife Services Division.

But it's trapping in the Western states that concerns most wildlife advocates.

Wildlife protection groups say that they are particularly concerned about the bobcat populations in the colder Northwestern states which are considered more valuable on account of their longer, softer fur and thus more intensively trapped.

The Humane Society of the United States has teamed-up with a number of smaller, independent organizations to urge the legislators in Western states like Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming to preemptively reduce trapping quotas.

Currents statistics from the state Wildlife Department show that trappers in Nevada alone skinned some 10,260 bobcats between 2006 and 2009, with a dramatic spike in 2006 corresponding to the peak market price of the furs.

Still, as efforts to obtain official, concrete numbers of bobcat populations are largely hamstrung by the animals' elusiveness, experts say they really can't tell to what extent trapping may be damaging the ubiquitous cats.

"It's real good at being hidden, and it makes them hard to count. Wildlife officials never have all the data they want so they base decisions on inadequate data," explained Kevin Hansen, New Mexican state park ranger and author of the book "Bobcat: Master of Survival."

Hansen points out that bobcats are not granted the priority and status that a number of other rarer species are given.  While he says that he would rather "err on the side of caution" than wait until the wildcats are hunted to the brink of extinction, he also concedes that it's difficult not to avoid arbitrary limits on trapping when you don't really know how many of the animals there are out there.

Nevada resident and former board member of the Defenders of Wildlife Don Molde believes that trappers ought to be subject to the same kinds of quotas to which game hunters have to conform.

"There's no question that bobcats are taking a hammering across the West because of high pelt prices," said Molde. "I don't think the unlimited killing of bobcats is doing the public's interest."

Chris Healy of Nevada's wildlife department say that the state's commission may likely trim down the length of this year's bobcat trapping season on account of the reduced number of kittens born in the previous year.  He added that dry weather and a resulting drop in prey is responsible for the dearth of kittens born in the last two years, not over-trapping.

"I would say we have a very stable and healthy population of bobcats out there," said Kevin Lansford, a specialist in fur-bearing animals with the Nevada wildlife department and a former federal trapper.

Lansford says that fluctuations in the bobcat population have far more to do with environmental conditions than with the number of the animals being harvested for their pelts.

A number of states such as Montana, Oregon and Utah have already introduced trapping quotas. Idaho does not limit the number of cats that trappers can take, but has a significantly shorter trapping season. Other states like Arizona, California, Colorado and Washington have prohibited foothold traps that snap shut to hold the animal's the leg.

Jeff Scott, an investigator for Montana's wildlife agency claims that regulations have led to an increase in poaching, whereby illicit trappers have been able to earn as much as $25,000 to $30,000 a season.

Some poachers are trapping the cats in states with quotas and bringing them to Wyoming, which has no limits, explained Scott Adell, an investigator with Wyoming's Game and Fish Department.

Under the guidelines of a 1973 international treaty, all bobcat furs have to be officially tagged by state authorities before they are eligible for export.

"I think we're damaging the resource" when we don't introduce trapping quotas, Adell said.


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