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Muskrat signals
By Mel Liston*

I started my trapping career as a kid nearly fifty years ago, catching muskrat out of the farm pond on our family property in Maine. Dad had spent a lot of money to make that pond which was flooded before it was completed by a 160 mph category 5 hurricane named Donna. I remember it well, for I have a sister of the same name, but with a much better disposition. Dug out in the shape of a half moon with a brook feeding in and held back by an earthen dam, our pond was stocked with catfish, bass, and bluegill. We planted water lilies in the shallows and shade trees on the far bank. All the wildlife in the area frequented the pond and from time to time some would stay for a season or two. There were always muskrat swimming about as they were common both up and downstream in the watershed. The muskrat had the nasty habit of constantly digging tunnels beneath the banking or into the earth filled dam, causing considerable erosion and structural weakness to the design. It became my job to trap and remove problem muskrat on a fairly regular basis. It was through this early experience with trapping and the associated observation of animals in their habitat that my appetite for all things natural was whetted.

During the ensuing years a considerable amount of change has taken place in all things under my observation, and most certainly the natural world as well has been quite dynamic. The nature of the forest habitat has changed significantly as has the numbers and blend of critters found within. Once the forest was quite variable, now it is much more homogeneous. The strip lots, brush, slab, and sawdust piles, so common in my youth are mostly gone now. The abandoned farms with the untended fields, orchards, and grape arbors have been swallowed up by the seasons of fallen leaves and choked out by dominant native timber. The preferred habitat of many species is all but gone while the competition from or predation of different species is making its play. Many parcels of choice habitat are lost to development and considerably more is impacted by its proximity to the same. Roads criss-cross everything, constantly dividing the land into smaller and smaller lots. The adventure of a backcountry ride has faded with that era of the old dirt roads as they are mostly paved now. Yet in spite of all this change we seem to have an expanding biodiversity while some traditional species decline or just hang on.

Recently I found myself leaning over the back of a pickup truck involved in conversation with a group of concerned trappers who were discussing the plight of the muskrat. We were all in agreement that muskrat populations had been in a long decline and we were taking turns expressing our theories as to just what has changed to prevent the customary population explosions which are typical of this species. The muskrat is a very interesting animal if you take the time to study them and I could go on for quite a spell about some of their very unique attributes for survival, but the most important gift they were given by Ole Ma Nature was prolific reproduction. These rodents are truly good at math for they do know how to multiply. Muskrat breed from late winter through late summer and can have three births in that period with four to seven per litter. Often the first born of the spring will mature in time to also produce a litter by fall. Conceivably a population of two could multiply to about fifty in six months time if the survival rate was very high. So what is keeping this animal from reaching its population potential? That is the question that trappers are pondering all over the country and we sure do wish that the wildlife biologists would take an interest also. It is doubtful that the muskrat that are in the habitat would not breed when in season, so the problem has to be one of two basic scenarios. Either #1; The population that is born is being decimated by some combination of predation, disease, and starvation or #2; the reproductive ability of the species is being impacted by an environmental variable such as a heavy metal or other toxin.

The muskrat population would normally overpopulate in regular cycles and die off due to starvation or disease. Historically this inevitable population increase has been little impacted by harvest through trapping so that the cycles were evident over a long period of time. There has been a significant increase in the type and variety of predators that prey on muskrat but the primary predator has always been the mink, so that their populations rise and fall together. There is some speculation that the increasing numbers of owls, hawks and other birds of prey may be a significant element or that coyotes may be involved in preventing a rebound in the muskrat population. Much of the wetland habitat is still available but perhaps it is impacted by road runoff or changes in agricultural practices. Maybe there is some new disease throughout the muskrat population that has not yet been identified, or maybe an environmental pollutant is genetically impacting the reproductive capability. The one thing I know for sure as a trapper and someone who observes changes in nature is that the muskrat is signaling that something significant has happened. It would be best if we could find a way to get beyond speculation and more toward knowledge. This is a topic crying out for attention. This is a notice that something significant has happened. To ignore such signs and signals is to do so at our own peril.

*Mel Liston, from Strafford, New Hampshire is a freelance writer, Trapper Education Instructor, Director for the New Hampshire Trappers Association and a member of the National Trappers Association and the Fur Takers of America.

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