Muskrat

July 15, 2020

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    One of the smallest furbearers in North America is the common muskrat. They are found anywhere from isolated marshes and streams to urban rivers and ponds, identified by their long rodent tail and the characteristic reed huts sticking out from the water. Muskrats live in territorial family groups, where they rarely stray farther than 45 meters from their home. Being a quite prolific animal, muskrats will birth three to eight kits per litter, having up to three litters per year. Kits usually are ready to leave the mother’s care after about a month [1]. Muskrats have long been an integral part of the fur business in North America, sought after for their dense, durable fur [2]. Despite man’s efforts, muskrats can still pose problems to people and their ecosystems. 

    As with most furbearers, the harvest of muskrats began in the 1600’s with the exploration of North America driven by the fur trade. Animals with dense, water-resistant fur like muskrats, otter, and especially beaver drove the market for wild fur. With thousands of hairs per square inch of fur, and a woolly underlayer that can hold as much as one quarter of the of the animals volume in air for insulation, its easy to see why muskrat fur is a prized garment material [3]. Historically, muskrats have been trapped using the #1 or 1 ½ steel foot hold or the size 110 conibear, both of which are lethal traps causing minimal stress to the animal [4], and are often baited using a concoction of the musk from their glands that they’re named for. These aquatic mammals are still trapped today either for their fur or to remove them when classified as a nuisance. Once they have been trapped, pelts harvested from muskrats are commonly used for coats, hats, and trim, while the carcass is often used in dog food and animal feed. 

    While an animal as small as a muskrat may not seem like it can pose a threat to humans or the environment, like any animal, unchecked population growth can cause serious problems. With muskrats constantly reproducing, the young are always venturing into new territory [1]. While muskrats are critical to the structuring of marshland vegetation and chemical cycles, they also can affect invertebrate populations and bird abundance [5]. Often, muskrats find their way into urbans areas and can be quite destructive, as well as carry dangerous parasites [6], but the Missouri Department of Conservation states the principal concern with muskrats as damage to earthen dams from burrowing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), “their burrowing and foraging activities can damage agricultural crops, native marshes and water control systems, such as aquaculture and farm ponds and levees.” Muskrats also cause damage by overconsumption of crops, crayfish, mussels, and other aquatic life. In some cases, muskrats can even adversely affect already fragile waterfowl populations, destroying vegetation in marshes [7]. Evidence of the destructive nature of muskrats can be found in the Netherlands, where the government pays trappers to protect the centuries old system of dikes and levees that keep the land from flooding. Muskrats tunnel through and under dikes, greatly compromising their structural integrity. Once a leak is sprung in a dike or levee, the whole structure could give way, causing untold destruction [8+9]. Trappers are the only line of defense against these prolific creatures. Sadly, like other species in Europe, there is no system in place to utilize the animal once killed, and the muskrats are discarded. Similar destruction occurs in the U.S. and Canada, where muskrats tunnel into steep embankments of rivers and streams. This compromise of structural integrity leads to washouts and erosion, a dangerous occurrence for fish and other water based life. Further, muskrat burrows can cause tremendous damage to the shoreline of a lake or pond [10]. Luckily, the fur industry is proud to provide a market and a use for harvested muskrats, eliminating the need for government intervention. Like all furbearers, the harvest of muskrats in the U.S. and Canada is highly regulated, and must be done by licensed trappers. This ensures that only the most humane and efficient methods are used, and there are never more muskrats taken than what’s healthy for the environment.

The goal of WFF is not only to point out that wild fur is sustainable and humane, but also to educate people that the harvest and utilization of fur results in a net positive gain for people and the animals. This statement could not be more true for muskrats. While this topic is expanded upon here, its important to realize how harvesting the surplus allows for a healthier population, driven by the freedom to reproduce and compensatory growth. For conservation status, Encyclopedia of Life lists the muskrat as “Least Concern” with a stable population, proving with widespread trapping of these animals, the population remains healthy. 

Muskrat trapping has been a part of North America’s heritage for centuries, and it’s more important than ever in ensuring a healthy population and the protection of infrastructure. Trappers play a vital role in protecting all parts of an ecosystem, and by harvesting muskrats, you may be saving ducks, geese, fish, and all the creatures that interact with them. By supporting the use of muskrat pelts, one can be assured that these aquatic mammals will be swimming in North America’s marshes and streams for generations to come, without posing any threats to the world around them. 

 

 

 

 

[1] Livescience.com. 2017. Facts About Muskrats. [online] Available at: https://www.livescience.com/57668-muskrat-facts.html#:~:text=Muskrats%20typically%20make%20their%20homes%20in%20marshes%2C%20swamps%20and%20wetlands.&text=Muskrats%20are%20large%20rodents%2C%20and,legs%20and%20almost%20invisible%20ears. [Accessed 15 July 2020] 

 

[2] Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Muskrat. [Online]. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/animal/muskrat [Accessed 15 July 2020].

 

[3] Alaska department of fish and game. Furs of Alaskan Mammals. [Online]. Available from: https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/education/educators/pdfs/furs_of_alaska_mammals_teachers_guide.pdf [Accessed 15 July 2020].

 

[4] University of kentucky. UKY Department of Forestry and Natural Resources . [Online]. Available from: https://forestry.ca.uky.edu/muskrat_lethal#:~:text=Muskrats%20are%20among%20the%20easiest,the%20size%20110%20Conibear%20trap.&text=This%20is%20necessary%20to%20prevent,diving%2C%20the%20animals%20quickly%20drown. [Accessed 15 July 2020].

 

[5] Roberts, N, Crimmins, S. Do Trends in Muskrat Harvest Indicate Widespread Population Declines?. Northeastern Naturalist. 2010;17(2): 229-238.

[6] Barker, F, Crimmins, S. Parasites of the American Muskrat (Fiber Zibethicus). The Journal of Parasitology . 1915;1(4): 184-197.

 

[7] Miller, J. Muskrats. [Online]. Available from: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/reports/Wildlife%20Damage%20Management%20Technical%20Series/Muskrat-WDM-Technical-Series.pdf [Accessed 15 July 2020].

 

[8] Kole, W. The Spokesman-Review. [Online]. Available from: https://www.spokesman.com/stories/1997/aug/28/its-war-on-muskrats-in-the-netherlands-prolific/ [Accessed 15 July 2020].

 

[9] Missouri department of conservation. Muskrat Control. [Online]. Available from: https://mdc.mo.gov/wildlife/nuisance-problem-species/nuisance-native-species/muskrat-control [Accessed 15 July 2020].

 

[10] Solitude Lake Management. Mischievous Mammals: Are Muskrats, Beavers, & Otters harmful to Ponds?. [Online] Available From: https://www.solitudelakemanagement.com/blog/mischievous-mammals-muskrats-beavers-otters-harmful-lakes-ponds [Accessed 15 July 2020].