By Laura Lundquist
Rising pelt prices have one Montana man worried about poaching, and he is suggesting rule changes to help keep his fellow trappers from breaking the law.
Darby resident Larry Rose, who has been a trapper, taxidermist and fur buyer for almost 50 years, said he has seen an apparent increase in bobcat poaching thanks to booming demand for the pelts overseas.
Bobcat pelts he paid $3 for years ago can now sell for more than $1,000 at auctions, such as the North American Fur Auction in Toronto, where more than half of the 700 buyers last February were from China. Prices at the auction for fur from lynx and lynx-type cats, such as bobcats, were up 40 percent over 2012 prices.
The high prices have motivated some trappers, Rose said, to continue trapping bobcats even after Fish, Wildlife and Parks regions have reached their quotas.
In a letter to the, Chronicle, Rose outlined one common scheme. After the quota is met, trappers in a region can claim they're after coyotes, an animal on which there is no trapping limit. The trappers then report that their bobcat kills came from the next region over.
Data appears to support this scheme, Rose said. Once one region's quota is reached, the number of reported daily kills in adjacent regions has been known to almost double.
And once all the regions have reached their quotas, Rose said, poachers will continue to trap bobcats, but they'll skin them and freeze the pelts and skulls to turn in the following year.
“Some wardens call those early-season cats ‘freezer' bobcats, knowing that they were illegally trapped the year before,” Rose wrote. “But it's hard to prosecute.”
James Kropp, FWP's law enforcement chief, said he was aware of a couple of incidents this year where trapped fur-bearing animals had been moved between regions.
Kropp said safeguards are in place for those who follow the rules, and he said most trappers do.
In 2012, a Lewistown trapper was found guilty of three charges related to trapping bobcats before the season opened. In 2013, wardens issued 18 trapping citations to Montanans, two of whom lost their trapping privileges for two years. Another 22 trappers, six from out of state, were warned, Kropp said.
To combat poaching, Rose suggested changes to the state's regulations that would require trappers to turn in entire bobcat carcasses for inspection within 24 hours — rather than 10 days — to prevent freezer fraud.
He also suggested that, like hunters, trappers be required to apply for a specific district and then trap only in that district. And he recommended reducing a trapper's limit to two bobcats instead of seven.
Ernie Judkins, a Bozeman fur buyer, has watched market prices for 30 years. He said criminal charges filed last summer against Chinese fur dealers for not paying tariffs and the possibility of China adopting a 30 percent tax on imported pelts will likely drive this year's auction prices down 35 to 40 percent.
However, demand for furs is still up in Russia, North Korea and other countries, he said.
“Rather than $1,000, prices will be around $600, but that's still good,” he said.
Requiring a 24-hour inspection would put a lot of pressure on his staff, which is limited by the Legislature-approved budget, Kropp said.
He added that the trapping quotas are reviewed every year, and biologists set limits that vary to account for occasional poaching, accidents and natural disturbance.
“When fur prices are higher, people try to fudge,” Kropp said. “Some of these reports are anecdotal, but we try to look out for it.”