The muskrat population across much of Alaska appears to be on the rise.
The fur-bearing rodent used to be very abundant in the first half of the 20th century, and harvesting muskrats for their meat and fur was a critical part of springtime subsistence activities. It was not uncommon for a family to harvest 1,000 or 2,000 muskrats in a season and use the furs to pay for food and supplies.
Then muskrat numbers plummeted.
Scientists aren’t sure why the muskrat population fell to such low levels. But they do know that muskrats have returned to levels not seen in Alaska for at least 40 years.
Galena elder Paddy Nollner remembers a time when it seemed like there was a never-ending supply of muskrats, and muskrat furs were a valuable trade good.
Nollner places the beginning of the muskrat decline around Galena in the early 1950s. Elsewhere, muskrats may have remained abundant until the early 1970s.
Then muskrat populations dropped sharply, and stayed relatively low until the past few years.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist and pilot Brad Scotton says that the muskrat decline happened all across North America at roughly the same time, and scientists are still debating why it happened. No single explanation works continent-wide. But in certain areas, habitat loss, environmental contamination, changes in water depth, increased predation and overabundance help explain the decline.
It is clear that muskrats are prolific breeders, and Scotton thinks that helps cast aside the theory that too much hunting and trapping caused the population collapse.
State Fish and Game biologist and pilot Tom Seaton has been studying muskrats for more than 20 years, mainly in the Tanana and upper Yukon drainages. In those areas too, the muskrats were virtually extinct for a while.
But then Seaton and other biologists began to see an upswing in muskrat populations around 2004. From the vantage point of his airplane, Seaton has witnessed a steadily growing population every year since then.
Seaton says he’s excited to how the abundance of muskrats affects the ecosystems in which they live. Muskrats are largely vegetarian, and are eaten by hawks, owls, mink, and otters.
Trappers might also welcome the return of the muskrat, as muskrat furs have bought in as much as $19 apiece in a fur auction earlier this year. The average price was closer to $5 each, but demand was strong from both Chinese and Canadian buyers. Muskrat fur goes into winter hats for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian military.
As for how long muskrat numbers will remain high…nobody knows.