Trappers dealing with roller coaster market

He was not surprised by what he heard from the state’s trappers.

“It’s been pretty consistent all over, and it’s not just here,” Wilson, an Illinois receiving agent for North American Fur Auctions. “They all want to know what happened to the market.”

Economic slowdowns in big fur-buying countries like Russia, China, and South Korea reached far across the globe to flatten the prices paid for pelts in 2015. The deflated market is broad, including raccoons, muskrats, mink, foxes, and coyotes.

Trappers and hunters in Illinois got a taste of the times back in January, when the Illinois Trappers Association fur sale at Odell noticed some lower prices.

The ITA sale featured 10 buyers and 22 lots of fur. Raccoon pelts brought $5.05 to $24, while beaver topped out at $13, though many sold for less. Coyotes had a $26 top, with an average of $13.98. Male mink topped out at $14.50, with an average of $8.60.  Female mink had a top of $6.50 and an average of $6.50. Red fox averaged $30.66, with a top of $31 and a low of $10.50.

Muskrats topped out at $10.75, with several sold for much less.

Earlier in the season, Wilson took note of discussions about muskrats. Illinois trappers who in the past had harvested good numbers of the critter had suddenly noticed a decrease in numbers. Wilson wondered if a disease spread by cats was affecting the muskrat population.

“One of the most asked questions I get on my fur pick up routes for NAFA throughout Illinois is, ‘What happened to all the muskrats?’” Wilson said, pointing out a Feb. 30 article in Illinois Outdoor News about toxoplasmosis in wild minks and muskrats in central Illinois. “Maybe that article will shed some light on the answer to that question.”

The article Wilson referred to described a study of muskrats and minks by the University of Illinois. Researchers found antibodies for Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, in 18 of 30 muskrats and 20 of 26 minks tested for the disease in central Illinois.

“We thought we’d do a broad prevalence survey in minks and muskrats,” said University of Illinois graduate student Adam Ahlers, who led the study with veterinary clinical medicine professor Mark Mitchell, Illinois Natural History Survey mammalian ecologist Edward Heske, and natural resources and environmental sciences professor Robert Schooley. “And when we got the data back, we were really surprised because the prevalence rates were higher than expected.”

Previous studies have found toxoplasmosis in sea otters, and a few studies have detected the parasite in semi-aquatic mammals in freshwater ecosystems, Ahlers said.

The researchers suspected that the widespread use of tile drainage systems and the lack of natural wetlands in central Illinois would help spread the disease. 

“A lot of streams have been dredged and straightened, and animals that have to live in those habitats are exposed to increased drainage from agricultural and urban runoff,” Ahlers said.

With no wetlands to filter out pathogens such as the T. gondii oocysts, rainwater likely flushes the parasite directly through drainage tiles and into waterways, he said.

“Our hypothesis was that animals positioned in larger watersheds would be exposed to more drainage and more oocysts, so they should have higher toxoplasmosis prevalence rates,” Ahlers said.

For muskrats, at least, that idea was borne out in the results: Muskrats in larger watersheds had higher toxoplasmosis prevalence rates than those from smaller watersheds. The team found no link between mink infection rates and the size of the watershed in which they were found, but this may be due, in part, to the already-high prevalence rate in minks: 77 percent of those tested had been exposed to T. gondii.

“Minks have larger home ranges. They leave the stream system and they’re eating mice and birds and other animals that could have the disease,” Ahlers said. “Muskrats are always in the stream channel and are picking up the disease passively – probably through grooming or drinking water. They’re herbivores, so it’s also likely they’re picking it up by consuming oocysts attached to aquatic vegetation.” 

Whether the disease has had a major impact on the muskrat population in Illinois is difficult to determine. Fur agents like Wilson will likely get a feel for the state’s muskrat harvest once the fur-buying season is over.

And because muskrat prices have fallen, some trappers may hold on to pelts in hopes that the market will re-ignite in the future. 

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