Two researchers looking into muskrat populations in the region report that the numbers seem to be up lately.
“Their populations are cyclic, but this low has been much more extended than usual – at least 10 to 15 years, but in some places longer – and an increase should have been observed a while ago,” said Chanda Turner, who is doing her master’s research on the subject.
“However, there were muskrats this year around Fort McPherson, where they have been very low for many years, and there were good numbers around Aklavik and Inuvik as well.”
Muskrat populations were widely reported by trappers to have dropped in the past 20 years, but recent information indicates an upward trend.
Turner found that the rodent’s distribution in the Delta is variable.
“Down below Aklavik, for example, seems to have had decent numbers consistently over the last five years that I’ve been learning about muskrats,” said Turner. “(The) Inuvik side has been more variable, but okay/good in the last couple of years, while up by Fort McPherson has been pretty much devoid of rats until this year. I’ve also heard that there a lot of rats down by Tuk, where they never used to be.”
Jeremy Brammer, PhD candidate at McGill University, said he and Turner have used a number of methods to track muskrat populations.
Those have included talking to trappers, conducting aerial surveys to look for pushups (sections of the ice and ground where muskrats make their home), collecting carcasses and getting out on the land to better visually determine what makes a good muskrat habitat.
“What I’ve heard from trappers in a number of areas is that they’ve seen an increase lately and that’s also what we’ve seen in our aerial survey,” said Brammer.
“We haven’t seen a rise to the way things were in the ‘70s but we have seen a rise, so that’s certainly good news.”
If muskrat populations are cyclic, this has been a long low, he added.
Some possibilities about why the muskrats declined in the first place include changes to water levels, timing and volume of the spring floods, changes in ice thickness and an increase in predators, such as foxes, otters and beavers.
Brammer is also interested in the effect water turbidity has on the rodent.
Despite the economic changes in the territory and population declines that have reduced the role of muskrat trapping, Turner found that the tradition is still very important to people in the region.
“These low populations coupled with the rise in trapping expenses – snow machines, gas, etc. – have made it unfeasible for many people to continue or go back to trapping the way they once did,” said Turner.
“However, rats have retained much of their importance despite the decline in their contribution to income and subsistence for many people. They remain culturally significant, and I was told over and over by people I interviewed that many residents will go back to harvesting if and when muskrat numbers come back up. This continuity of the importance of muskrats in the context of socio-economic change was very striking to me.”
Brammer emphasized the value in trappers sharing their knowledge with him and Turner and said they’ve had a great partnership with the government and other organizations in the territory.
Like any good science question, the answers are going to take time, he said. Brammer hopes to continue the research for years to come, should his project receive ongoing funding.