Muskrats are seemingly as much a part of marsh life in North Dakota as cattails and water. Not this year. The rodents are few and far between, likely due to being at the end of a population cycle.
"Most all wildlife is cyclical, really," said Stephanie Tucker, furbearer biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "For muskrats that seems to be every 10 to 12 years."
The muskrat population decline this year is particularly dramatic. According to Game and Fish surveys the statewide muskrat population this year is 84 percent below the 20-year average. Last year the number of muskrats harvested was down 57 percent from the previous season.
Muskrat numbers in North Dakota are believed to be at the low end of a cycle common to the species.
Those numbers don't come as a surprise to Kathy Baer, Garrison Wetland district manager at Audubon National Wildlife Refuge.
"I haven't seen many. So far I think it's less," said Baer. "The amount of mounds is not noticeable like they have been the last couple of years."
"Just from general observation I can say I haven't seen a lot of huts," added Paul Halko, Arrowwood NWR.
The huts referred to by Halco are muskrat mounds constructed primarily of mud and reeds. Muskrats utilize the chambers inside to protect themselves from the cold of winter and sometimes raise their young. In many years it is common to see multiple muskrat mounds in a single wetland. The lack of muskrat mounds this year means fewer muskrats.
"I do a lot of trapping and trapped very few last year, maybe a tenth of what I usually get," said Ryan Shively, Kulm Wetland Management District. "We had trappers from about every state coming down here when the population was high. I don't know if there's going to be any to trap this year."
Statistics and trends confirm Shivley's observations. Game and Fish has utilized rural mail carrier surveys for 20 years to help determine muskrat numbers. The routes the carriers cover extend for 40,000 miles of roadway. Further data comes from the number of muskrats trapped and sold.
"Just like deer and turkeys, we send out surveys right after the season. Trappers have to record what they take," explained Tucker.
Sales of muskrat pelts are also closely tracked. However, because muskrats harvested in North Dakota can be sold elsewhere, precise numbers of muskrats taken in the state remains unknown. Two years ago in-state sales of muskrat pelts reached 128,000. That compares to an average of less than 7,000 pelts sold the previous 10 years.
According to Tucker, trapping pressure on muskrats is closely related to the price being paid for pelts. The purchase price for muskrats was as little as 50 cents a few years ago. More recently prices for good quality muskrats has approached $10.
"Muskrat fur is used for clothing, especially in China," said Tucker. "Muskrats are popular there, also in Greece and Korea."
What has occurred to North Dakota's muskrats is a merging of high pelt prices and the low end of a population cycle. Additionally, a dry 2012 across much of North Dakota led to a drying up of some potholes. When water levels drop below existing cattail lines it is not agreeable habitat for muskrats. Muskrats do not store food for the winter. During a North Dakota winter they must swim under the ice to access their cattail food supply.
A reversal of the state's muskrat population can occur rather quickly. Muskrats are known to produce two to three litters a year. The number of young per litter averages 6-7, but litters of 10 or more are not uncommon.
The state's muskrat trapping season is scheduled to open Oct. 26. It runs through April 30, 2014. Muskrats can be taken with firearms or archery equipment beginning Nov. 25.