STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You know, there's a reason that Canada has a beaver on its nickel. Europe demanded beaver hats centuries ago, and the New World answered with pelts in abundance. If you ever wondered why it was that explorers went up and down the Mississippi and other parts of North America, they were looking for beavers. They were looking for furs. Consumers have fallen in and out of love with furs in the century since then, developing other fabrics and wrestling with the ethics of farming and trapping fur-bearing animals.
But as Jennifer Mitchell from Maine Public Radio reports, North American fur is booming again.
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JENNIFER MITCHELL, BYLINE: That's the sound of fashion in Moscow. Marching down the runway is a collection by Russian designer Igor Gulyaev. Every piece has fur on it, from big puffy hats and cuffs to shaggy handbags and fuzzy lapels. There are even whole dresses made of fur sheared short, like velvet. It's a portrait of what fur looks like today.
GREG TINDER: You can't keep fur in stock in Russia. You know, it just, it moves out. The higher the price tag you put on it, the faster it sells.
MITCHELL: Greg Tinder, is a furrier who left Saks Fifth Avenue to start his own label. A self-described Russophile, he observes Russian fashion trends. The East, he says, has always been a furrier's dream; think big plushy Soviet-era hats. But now, with Russia's economy on the rise, there's some new money on the block, and designers know that.
TINDER: Every other page in a fashion magazine, every third page has fur something, somewhere.
MITCHELL: And it's not just Russia. British Vogue estimates that 70 percent of fall collections for 2013 included at least some real fur. Alan Herscovici with the Fur Council of Canada says it's upwardly mobile consumers in Russia, China, and Korea who are driving the market, buying more youthful furs.
ALAN HERSCOVICI: The fur sales that are the strongest now are not necessarily your grandmother's old mink coat.
MITCHELL: Rather, it's the bunny cuffs and coyote fur ruffs that helped grow the retail fur industry to $15.5 billion last year - 45 percent more than sales 10 years ago.
And 10 years ago it wasn't very lucrative at the other end of the business either, especially for trappers.
JOHN SEWELL: You go through and skin a 45 pound animal, you flesh it out, you dry it, you comb it, you send it up to auction and you get $7 for it.
MITCHELL: That was then, says Maine trapper John Sewell, and this is now.
SEWELL: This coyote will probably be a $50 coyote. That's what they want for the trim trade.
MITCHELL: What used to be a $2 muskrat is now a $12 muskrat. The marten that was worth $40 could bring almost $200 at an auction today.
With money like that, says Sewell, everyone wants to be a trapper. He says interest has gone up about five-fold in the last few years. Sewell, who traps on what he calls a very small scale, expects he'll make about nine or 10 thousand dollars at the North American Fur Auction in February. Bigger trappers, he says, will walk away with tens of thousands. But the trappers' good fortune is not welcome news for animal welfare advocates who've fought to keep fur off the catwalks.
PIERRE GRZYBOWSKI: Animals are skinned alive.
MITCHELL: Pierre Grzybowski from the Humane Society of the United States says they're also drowned in water traps and electrocuted. He questions whether the Eastern demand for fur will spill over into the U.S.; he says hundreds of stores in America won't sell it.
GRZYBOWSKI: More and more retailers realize that it's not worth the risk to their bottom line and the risk of angering their consumers.
MITCHELL: Who, he says, are buying a third less fur than they did 10 years ago.
But for rural trappers, like John Sewell, who have come to rely on the income they get from their winter trap lines, it doesn't really matter who's driving the market; he's just glad that the days of the $2 muskrat seem to be over.
For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Mitchell.