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Winter Must be Coming as the Muskrats are building their Homes

For quite some time I’ve been fascinated with Swamp Lake, a large swamp off Chief Joseph Highway. Massive Cathedral Cliffs provides not only the backdrop, but all the water from these limestone massifs drain into the low meadows below. Rare plants, birds, grizzly bears and wolves travel through here. But I’ve been interested in the muskrats that live there.

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Muskrats aren’t rare or endangered, but around our mountains this is the only place I’ve seen them. Rumor has it that a long time ago a man was raising muskrats for their fur in the lakes. These days they live in peace as I’ve never seen any trappers in these swamplands.

Muskrats spend most of their time in the water, and can dive for up to fifteen minutes at a time. That’s why it’s hard to spot them. Last spring, every time I passed a pond on my way to the Park, I stopped and watched for a muskrat. Once I saw one swim to a log that lay half onshore, climb on it, only to scent-mark it. Occasionally, yet rarely, I’d catch them swimming. Here’s a lucky photo I took of one swimming near the road.muskrat

In winter I look for their ‘push-ups’ which are the smaller equivalent of beaver lodges. When you start to see the push-ups appearing, you know winter will be here soon. When I passed by the ponds in mid-October, I saw no sign of little houses. But this weekend, here they were.

Distant pushups

Muskrat house

I counted five pushups in this large pond. The swamp is huge, with myriads of convoluted connector corridors so there are others push-ups, yet I’ve found most of them in this particular area. Which brings up some questions. I understand that muskrats are territorial, so how many muskrats might be living in this pond with 5 houses? And why do I see the majority of push-ups here?

These homes will be added to. Here’s one from two winters ago. They don’t last but one season. You can see on the photo below that it is surrounded by ice. The pond freezes, but not completely solid so the muskrats can use these holes to sleep in and store their food.

Close up of a constructed house.  These don't last more than a season usually

Close up of a constructed house. These don’t last more than a season usually

The swamp lies between the forested cliffs and the highway. The old dirt highway runs at the base of the cliffs. Facing north with little sun in winter, the snows are deep there. I like to ski this isolated road in winter where animal tracks abound. Wildlife use it as a secretive corridor. Occasionally there are even tracks across the frozen lake. Wolves, martens, weasels, snowshoe hare, coyote and deer are the most common tracks.

Here’s a great Youtube video from the 1950s in Idaho. It shows the Idaho Fish & Game live trapping muskrats, martens, and beavers to relocate them. The best part of the video is how beaver were reintroduced into remote wilderness area by parachuting them in little boxes.