Voices of the Future (3) - The Plight of the Muskrats

by Dylan Bakner
Wildlife and Fisheries Science major, graduating May, 2016

The muskrat, a native species to North America, is a medium-sized rodent that inhabits a variety of aquatic ecosystems. This semi-aquatic mammal’s diet is largely based on vegetation that can be found within their habitat. The breeding season lasts from March through August. Females can have up to four litters, bearing an average of six kits per litter. Trapping season for muskrats in Pennsylvania lasts from the middle of November to the middle of January.

The muskrat population has been on a steady decline since the early 1980s. During the trapping season that spanned 2010 and 2011, Tom Hardisky, a furbearer biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, conducted a study looking at the juvenile-to-adult ratio of muskrats in the state. After accounting for 8,924 muskrat pelts, he found eight juveniles for every three adults. This study disproved the popular notion that disease was causing the population decline. Despite ruling out disease, Hardisky was unable to arrive at the underlying problem. Hardisky believes that runoff from farms, which used to provide muskrat’s vegetation with rich nutrients, is no longer reaching their habitats.  This argument is backed up by a Penn State study conducted by Jeffery Everett.  Aside from this, riprap is being put into the banks of streams as a measure of preventing erosion.  Before the installation of this riprap, muskrats were able to burrow into the existing sandy banks of streams. The riprap similarly affects vegetation in the areas inhabited by muskrats, thus making their effects two-fold. Future studies could increase chances of sustaining the muskrat population.

Speaking from the personal experience of someone who has trapped muskrats since childhood, the installation of riprap has caused a visible decline.  On a larger scale, my father, who has trapped for forty years, has noticed an increase in predators of the muskrat, as well as a loss of habitat.  The muskrats in South Central Pennsylvania are adapting to the lack of vegetation by resorting to less favorable food sources such as clams and fish, according to Paul Errington’s book “Muskrats and Marsh Management.”

Following is a graph of my personal recordings of muskrat pelt harvest over the past seven years. Included in the graph are three separate locations, along with their respective statistics of harvest.  The three locations used to provide my father with forty to fifty muskrats each.

The amount of vegetation at location 1 (from the graph above) 15 years ago.

The amount of vegetation at location 1 (from the graph above) today.

Reasons why sustenance of muskrats is important:

Muskrats provide a healthy food chain for hawks, owls, mink, raccoon, fox and many other species.
Revenue from hunting and trapping licenses goes to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which in turn uses it to help maintain all wildlife in Pennsylvania.
Muskrat lodges built in open water can be used for nesting sites for waterfowl, frogs, snakes, turtles and more.

Some of my youngest childhood memories include trapping muskrat, along with my father, brother and grandfather. It has become a family tradition for my family and I to set our first muskrat traps of the year on Thanksgiving Day. As a young child, my brother and I were always excited to go trap our local waterways for muskrat, raccoon, and mink. I’m thankful for having such a patient father to take us trapping with him because most of the time we ended up falling into the frigid cold water. To this day, I still manage to fall into the water along with my older brother; however, now we have upgraded to wearing chest waders rather than hip boots, so we don’t get as wet.

I’ve never had the ability to not fall in the water! Still to this day I end up falling!

Muskrats are fascinating and magnificent creatures in my eyes. Muskrat trapping is hard work. The years I’ve spent trapping them have made a great influence on my life. The trap line has taught me to have a strong work ethic. There is no other place I would rather spend my time in the fall months, than being out on the muskrat line.

My brother (on the right) and I in 2002, with a hard earned muskrat.

Tip Amount


Andy B. said…
Would not have thought that use of rip rap would be extensive enough to cause an impact on populations - a small percentage compared to total stream bank area, no?

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