Nuisance or not, muskrat population declining

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muskrat

There’s a nuisance in the neighborhood. It sleeps all day but is active at night, eating and burrowing. Excessive eating isn’t the issue. It is an omnivore, eating mainly aquatic plants. 

The problem is the home it is building along the banks of a pond. It looks like a beaver but has a tail like a rat. It used to be considered a delicacy, dipped in flour and fried in butter. 

Its valuable pelts were a major part of the early Canadian and Native American lucrative trapping business. It is a rodent by many names: marsh rabbit, mud cat and mud beaver. 

Muskrats

Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are the mystery animal, living in the wetlands, marshes, swamps and ponds of Ohio. They can be found in North America from Canada all the way to southern Mexico. 

These prolific swamp dwellers were historically quite adept at multiplying. Muskrats are not monogamous, but mate for a season. A female can have 1-5 litters a year, but a typical number is two. Each litter has 5-7 young. Using basic math, that means it’s possible in pristine conditions for one female to have 35 offspring in a year. 

Lodges

Similar to beavers, muskrats live in lodges. Instead of using sticks like beavers, muskrats use aquatic vegetation like cattails and other stalks with mud acting as glue to keep it together. Their lodges can be as large as 8 feet wide by 5 feet tall. It’s large real estate for a creature that is only 16-25 inches long, including its tail. Muskrat lodges provide excellent places for geese and ducks to nest. 

Muskrats are an integral part of an ecosystem as they are a primary prey resource for mink, foxes, coyotes, eagles, owls and raccoons. 

Tunnels

Muskrats are not good news for landowners. In some areas, like along steep banks and dams, muskrats dig tunnels underwater instead of building lodges. The tunnels lead to the area above water level, keeping the living chamber dry. 

The tunneling damages embankments and weakens water barriers. Water seepage and erosion can be attributed to muskrat activity. 

It’s not just the damage to the pond that is worrisome. Muskrats can carry rabies. 

Even though muskrats are nocturnal, they can be agitated during the day. They generally do not attack humans, but they become aggressive when threatened. Children need to be aware of the danger and encouraged to steer clear of the animal. 

Trapping

Muskrats can be trapped in season in Ohio. A Fur Taker Permit must be purchased in addition to a hunting license. The last decade has shown a decrease in the amount of Fur Taker Permits purchased. 

The Columbus Dispatch reported 13,300 fur taker permits sold in 2019, while more than 20,500 permits were sold in 2010. 

Trapping muskrats and the fur trapping trade encouraged the exploration of North America. Early settlers used the pelt to make warm clothing. The outer layer of muskrat fur is also waterproof. Trappers sold the pelt and body separately. 

The meat was noted as tasting like a combination of squirrel and partridge. The demand was so high that several muskrat farms were developed in Ohio in the 1920s. 

Decline

The Ohio State Trappers Association, using input from trappers in the Midwest and the northeastern United States, has concluded that the population of muskrats has been on the decline. 

The observations noted by trappers combined with similar stories from wildlife managers spurred a study by the Ohio Division of Wildlife in conjunction with the Wilds. The study aimed to collect muskrat carcasses from all over Ohio to determine overall health and well-being. The study sought to determine factors attributing to the population decline such as an accumulation of toxins, the presence of disease, and the effects of contaminants. 

Researchers studied 592 muskrats collected from 2013 to 2015. The most alarming data collected showed a concerning level of exposure to toxic metals. The exposure was found in areas across the state, not just one localized area. 

This common thread might be contributing to the overall decline in the population of muskrats. 

It is quite the dance, trying to achieve the delicate balance of living near wildlife. What I consider a nuisance is actually an animal that has been on this land since before white settlers. Native Americans included the muskrat in their creation stories. 

The muskrat carried the mud out of the water after a flood. Which is more important, saving one pond or saving an entire ecosystem? Is the health of muskrats an indicator of a bigger environmental issue? 

These are questions being considered by landowners, trappers and wildlife experts. “The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever-shifting, in a constant state of adjustment. Man, too, is part of this balance.” Rachel Carson surmised.

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