Parts of North Dakota feeling no love for muskrats
GRAND FORKS - It's happened pretty much every night this spring, Tom Shirek says; his yellow Lab, Theo, makes the rounds in 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."
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.
Besides being prolific, muskrats can do a lot of damage to roads, dikes and other infrastructure. In Walsh County, muskrats have gotten so bad that the Highway Department obtained a special control permit from the state Game and Fish Department that 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."
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."
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."