By BRETT FRENCH
Of The Gazette Staff
Published on Thursday, December 28, 2006.
Asian countries with strong economies are driving the demand for bobcat fur, keeping Montana and Wyoming pelt prices steady or rising in value over the past few years.
"Those countries that are developing and have good economies, such as China, have an increasing demand for spotted furs," said Brian Giddings, state furbearer coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "People with growing incomes want to have fine fashions."
The resulting demand, along with strong bobcat populations, has increased the harvest and the number of trappers in Montana.
According to FWP's Web site, bobcat furs have led all other pelt prices, rising from an average price of $280.25 in 2003-04 to $345 in 2005-06. The next closest fur in price was the much more rare wolverine, priced at $300 in 2005-06.
Doug Judgkins, of Bridger Fur Co. in Bridger, said how long bobcat pelts have held their value is uncharacteristic.
"It's really unusual where one item has stayed strong for so many years," Judgkins said. "But the fur market is strong all across the board."
Giddings said it's rare to have high prices and good bobcat numbers at the same time.
"At other times in the past, we've seen high prices and no bobcats," Giddings said, or low prices and plenty of cats.
The high price has tempted some trappers back into the sport and has attracted new ones.
"There's no question more people are trapping across the United States," Judgkins said. "Having enough traps to supply them has been atrocious." Trap makers got caught short of merchandise as demand shot up, he said.
Giddings said trapping licenses are up significantly from the early 1990s. About 3,500 to 3,600 trapping licenses were issued this year, he said, compared with about 1,800 in the early 1990s.
"There's definitely a rising interest," Giddings said. "Price drives the number of trappers."
Joliet trapper Doug Sharbono said the bad thing about high prices is it brings the worst out in some trappers.
"When these cat prices get high, there are a lot of cutthroats out there," he said. "It kind of brings some of the bad things out."
Price definitely fuels the harvest.
"If prices are good, people take the opportunity to harvest what they can," Giddings said.
Size, shade, color and quality drive the price of bobcat furs, Judgkins said. A big tom with a clear belly draws top dollar.
Judgkins said bobcats from Montana and northern Wyoming produce some of the best pelts in the nation.
"It's just a different breed of cat," Judgkins said. "Some areas are just better. Around Libby and the Kalispell area, the bobcats are much darker and don't have the snow white belly."
Giddings said bobcat populations in Montana have remained strong for several years, partly due to mild winters and good numbers of cottontail rabbits, a mainstay in the bobcat's diet.
Because cat numbers are strong, FWP quotas for harvest have remained high.
"The quotas are higher than they've been in a long time," Giddings said - 2,230 for the entire state with Region 7 in southeastern Montana holding the largest quota at 700 animals.
The quota is usually filled by January even though the season doesn't start until Dec. 1. The season closed Dec. 19 in Region 1 in northwestern Montana, which had a quota of 250 bobcats.
In Region 5, the Billings area, the bobcat harvest was halted at 394 animals last year. The year before, the harvest was stopped at 430. FWP institutes a closure when 92 percent of the harvest is met. This year's quota in Region 5 is 400 cats.
"We seem to have a pretty healthy bobcat population," said Jay Newell, FWP wildlife biologist based in Roundup. "To tell you the truth, five years ago I didn't think we'd be able to sustain the quota."
Newell said trappers in Region 5 have doubled since the mid-1990s but are down by about a third from the high of 157 in the 1984-85 season.
"That's price-driven," Newell said, pointing out that in 2000, the average price for a bobcat pelt was only $25.
In the Billings area, Newell said bobcats are spread out over about 9,000 square miles of the region's 12,000 square miles. Out of that terrain, however, some habitat is much better for bobcats.
"They like ponderosa pine, interspersed with rocky areas," Newell said.
In addition to rabbits, they will dine on game birds such as grouse and turkeys, as well as small mammals.
Billings trapper Chuck Pollansky said trapping bobcats is mostly about attracting their attention and arousing their curiosity with anything from flagging to a piece of hide hanging in a tree branch to scents.
"They're not trap-shy, but I've had them walk right past the set," he said. "But once you've found a real hot spot, then by nature others will follow the same paths."
Although the bobcat market has been good, it could just as easily swing the other way.
"We haven't had a real major drop in fur dealing in a few years," Judgkins said. "When it did, it broke a lot of buyers."
But as Giddings noted, the market is bound to change sooner or later.
"At some point that will fall off, bobcat numbers will drop," Giddings said.
Brett French can be reached at email@example.com or at 657-1387.