I drive by several cattail sloughs in my daily routine which is probably typical for a lot of North Dakotans.   And with the ice now off area marshes and lakes the muskrats have been rather conspicuous.

Muskrats are native to much of North America where they occupy a variety of wetland habitats ranging from cattail marshes to lakes, and drainage ditches.  In our area they may produce two or maybe three litters of 5-6 young each year.  A family of the parents and young will occupy the iconic muskrat lodge and generally defend a small territory surrounding it.

Muskrats largely feed on the roots, stems, and rhizomes of aquatic plants such as cattails, sedges, and pondweeds.  They are also occasionally known to consume snails, small fish and the like.

Muskrats are actually quite influential in the ecology of the wetlands in which they live.  They are excellent cattail managers.  Cattails often grow to form dense extensive stand, but muskrats will generally open up these cattail stands making them more suitable habitat for waterfowl.  Plus, as many of us have observed, geese and other waterfowl may use their lodges for nesting sites, and many other animals including snakes, frogs, toads, and turtles find cover in the lodges.

Muskrats have historically been an important furbearer in North Dakota.  There does not seem to be as many trappers these days, but over the years, muskrat trapping put money in the pockets of a lot of high school boys.  I was rather surprised to read in Robert Seabloom’s Mammals of North Dakota that 325,000 muskrat pelts were taken in North Dakota during 1945.  Today the harvest is in the 30,000 to 40,000 range.

With all of those muskrats being trapped what happens to the carcasses? Cooking up some muskrat is one option.  I cannot say I have heard of anyone eating muskrat, but out of curiosity I did a little internet research on the subject.  Wild game cookbook author Hank Shaw’s website lists several recipes that could utilize muskrat, including stew, Kentucky burgoo, and Hungarian goulash.  But there is a reason most of us have not heard of people eating muskrat, and “The Art and Science of Muskrat Cooking” by Troy Andrews in the Modern Farmer takes a colorful and humorous approach to muskrat gastronomy (that may be an oxymoron).

Click on the link below to view Troy Andrews’ “The Art and Science of Muskrat Cooking” from the Modern Farmer.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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