No love for muskrats -- Overly abundant rodents are causing problems this spring in parts of Minnesota, N.D.
It's happened pretty much every night this spring, Tom Shirek says; his yellow Lab, Theo, makes the rounds of nearby sloughs and returns home with furry, little "presents" he leaves in the yard.
The "presents" are muskrats, and they're everywhere in some parts of northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota this spring. Shirek says there have been mornings when he's woken up to the sight of nearly a dozen dead muskrats dropped on his lawn.
But even a loyal rat dog like Theo doesn't put much of a dent in the muskrat population this year.
"They're basically the worst I've seen," said Shirek, 41, who lives in Walsh County's Latona Township and farms in several townships. "They're everywhere.
"He brings them up nightly, and back in the peak season about a month ago, he had 21 of them in two nights," Shirek added. "I bet my dog has brought up 50, 60, 70 so far. He's a gentle giant, but for some reason, he likes tussling with those things. He brings them right up to the house."
According to Stephanie Tucker, furbearer biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, muskrat populations are high because abundant water conditions the past couple of years have created ideal habitat for the critters.
Muskrats thrive in cattail-rich marshlands, and when habitat conditions are right -- as they are now -- a female can have two or three litters a summer, with as many as 11 babies each time, Tucker said.
Do the math, and that means a single female could have 33 babies in a summer.
"They have really high reproductive rates, so the population can go from not very many to a bunch in just a year or two," Tucker said.
Want to know more?Read muskrat facts.
Besides being prolific, muskrats can do a lot of damage to roads, dikes and other infrastructure. In Walsh County, muskrats have gotten so bad the Highway Department obtained a special control permit from the state Game and Fish Department, which allows anyone who gets their name on a list to legally shoot the animals basically anywhere in the county.
Sharon Lipsh, superintendent of highways for the Walsh County Highway Department, said 55 people had signed up for the control permits as of midweek.
"They're just destroying the roads out there," Lipsh said. "There are no shoulders on them, and the water is high. They burrow under the road and collapse the road."
There've been similar damage reports from parts of Grand Forks and Ramsey counties.
Lipsh, who's been with the county since December 1998, said this is the first year she's gotten complaints about muskrats and the damage they're causing. The problem is especially severe in southwestern Walsh County, she said.
Shirek said he has two buddies who recently shot 180 muskrats in two days.
"Another couple of kids up here supposedly had over 500 one weekend," Shirek said. "The numbers are just staggering."
Tucker said the Game and Fish Department tracks muskrat population trends through a roadside survey that rural mail carriers conduct every summer. The trend showed a marked increase last year, Tucker said, and she expects it to be even higher this summer. She said hunters have harvested 12,000 to 14,000 muskrats the past two years, and when results from the latest season are available, Tucker said she expects to see an increase.
North Dakota's trapping season for muskrats ended March 13, while the season for firearms, archery, underwater traps and underwater cable devices ended May 8. Tucker said Game and Fish closes the season to minimize the impact on nesting waterfowl and because muskrat numbers aren't always high.
"We're more than happy to issue permits to people experiencing damage," Tucker said. Or, in cases such as Walsh, the department issues countywide control permits.
Roger Rostvet, deputy director of the Game and Fish Department, said the agency has issued 18 county permits across the state so far this year, including Ramsey, Nelson, Cavalier and Walsh counties. That's far more than usual, he said.
"It's kind of an unusual situation," Rostvet said. "It's really odd to issue this many permits."
Landowners also can kill muskrats without permits if the rodents are causing property damage, said Gary Rankin, district game warden for Game and Fish in Larimore, N.D.
"Muskrats are classified as furbearers, and furbearers can be eliminated if they're causing a problem" on private land, Rankin said. "So, if it's someone shooting muskrats by their driveway or someplace where they're causing problems, they're within their legal rights to do that."
Muskrat road rage
Muskrats aren't exactly in short supply in northwestern Minnesota, either. Stuart Bensen, conservation officer for the Department of Natural Resources in Erskine, Minn., said an area along state Highway 59 south of U.S. Highway 2 has especially high numbers.
A lot of muskrats, he said, get killed on the highways when they get too close to vehicles in an effort to protect their turf. Bensen said he talked to one person who recently counted 160 road-killed muskrats in a 60-mile stretch of Highway 59 between Erskine and Detroit Lakes, Minn.
"They're hostile little critters," Bensen said. "They're in the breeding season and like any guy, they bristle up. They go up and hiss at cars and think they're going to take on the car, but 2 pounds doesn't do very well against 2 tons, so they're splattered all over the roads."
Minnesota only allows trapping for muskrats, Bensen said, and the season ended Feb. 28. Like North Dakota, though, the DNR will issue permits for problem animals. The muskrats must be turned over to the DNR within 24 hours, Bensen said.
Beyond the road-kill incidents, Bensen said he hasn't heard of the muskrats causing any real problems.
"There seems to be more trappers over here, and they like to target muskrats," Bensen said. "The price is good, and they're an easy critter to catch and easy to skin out."
Tucker of the Game and Fish Department said a skinned out pelt can fetch as much as $6 at auction. Because muskrats are so abundant, Tucker said she's gotten requests to extend North Dakota's season. But that's not likely to happen, she said.
"When it comes to controlling damage to roadways, the best method is still localized, targeted removal," Tucker said. "Encouraging statewide opportunities doesn't help."
Concerns hit home
In Walsh County, Shirek said he's worried about the muskrats' impact on roads, now that farming season is in full swing after a late start.
"With today's equipment, everything is wider and heavier," Shirek said. "When implements run along the edge of the road, the sides of the road will cave in. The water keeps working in those tunnels and just keeps getting softer and softer until the road will just give way.
"It's going to be a concern because it happens, and the townships don't have the dollars to tend to building roads."
Lipsh, the Walsh County highway superintendent, said there's not much the department can do aside from offering the countywide control permit. Neither the county nor any of the townships pay bounties on the muskrats, she said.
"We're just going to have to fix up some roads," she said. "But as far as eliminating the problem, we are not involved in that."