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Unusually low fur prices may prove a devastating financial blow to some Utah fur ranchers, who face their bleakest financial return in 20 years.

But don't blame the growing animal-rights protest movement sweeping the United States and Europe for the economic ills of fur breeders, says Bob England, general manager of the Fur Breeders Agriculture Cooperative."If you listen to some of these folks (protesters) they are taking credit for the drop in fur prices," said England. "But more than anything it is a function of the market. Production has outstripped demand."

In fact, consumers are buying as many or more furs this year as any other. But with more furs on the market, prices are lower; in some cases 25 percent lower than a few years ago.

"We have more fur stores than we've had in 10 years," said Lynne Arent, owner of Arent's Doorway to Fashion, an exclusive retailer of fine furs. "The protests haven't hurt sales. The thing that has hurt sales is the bad economy and the junk furs coming from the Far East."

She said a lot of stores that never used to carry furs now are selling them because of the abundance of cheap, poor-quality furs from the Far East. That cuts into the market for high-quality U.S.-produced furs.

Utah's 300 or so fur ranches provide 25 percent of all mink pelts produced annually in North America. Utah is the second largest producer of mink pelts in the United States.

Combined with the sale of some fox pelts, the fur industry pumps an estimated $30 million to $60 million annually into the Utah economy, depending on market demand.

Currently, the fur industry is at its lowest point since 1969, England said.

"The Utah industry is at one of the low points in a cyclical business," England said. "Some are struggling. But it's also a time when ranchers who have planned well will squeak by and those that didn't won't.

"As a whole, fur breeding is a strong industry. But if you're not in a position to compete with existing market conditions, you have to change your business practices or go out of business."

Local stores report some slackening of fur sales. "Our business is not as good as we would like it to be, but I don't know if it can be attributed to the protests or the recession," said ZCMI saleswoman Helen Ritchie.

Area animal-rights advocates are eager to take credit for the decline in sales.

"We most definitely do believe we are having an impact. The widespread growth of awareness of the unnecessary aspect of furs, the inevitable cruelty that is part of their production, and the outdated aspect of wearing furs has had an impact on people's perception of this industry," said Katharine Brant, director of development, Utah Humane Society.

Brant said the animal-rights movement has made people better educated.

"A lot of us even 10 years ago looked at a fur coat hanging in the salon and saw nothing but the glamour and the luxury that was connected with it," she said. "It never occurred to us to question how that coat came to be."

Those involved in producing, marketing and selling furs are unanimous in their disgust with the animal-rights protesters who they say are resorting to a variety of confrontational tactics to economically sabotage a legitimate industry.

England says animal-rights advocates are playing on an emotional issue. He called fur ranching a "very ecologically sound industry. We're a renewable resource, we use waste products from other industries, we produce a very functional product, and environmentally it is better than using the petrochemicals used in making fake furs."

Utah mink ranchers have attempted to educate ranchers and to blunt criticism from the public by setting up an animal welfare coalition. The coalition will educate ranchers on how to provide the best possible growing environment for their animals, thereby improving the quality of the pelts.