Muskrats are important to the Indigenous people of the region who harvest the animals for both food and fur. The pelts are used locally for making traditional clothing, or are sold commercially for trapping income. As aquatic herbivores and an important food source for carnivores, the presence of muskrats in wetland habitats is a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
The Peace-Athabasca Delta is one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world and a Wetland of International Significance (Ramsar site). 80% of the delta lies within Wood Buffalo National Park, which is a World Heritage Site. In 2011, Wood Buffalo National Park and local Indigenous communities started working together on muskrat monitoring in the Peace-Athabasca Delta in response to questions and concerns about muskrat abundance raised by traditional land users.
Why Monitor Muskrats?
Muskrats are an excellent indicator of ecosystem health because their numbers respond strongly to natural deltaic processes of flooding and drying. In the Peace-Athabasca Delta, seasonal spring flooding caused by natural ice jams on rivers during spring break-up is beneficial to the muskrats as it replenishes the wetlands where they build their houses.
One environmental concern is that these types of ice jams and floods are happening less often due to climate change and upstream flow regulation by hydro dams. As a result, some of the delta’s wetlands have either dried up or are in the process of drying up. This has reduced the amount of wetland habitat available for species such as waterfowl, shorebirds, and muskrats.
Muskrat abundance is one indicator of wetland health in the park’s ecological monitoring program. Since 2012, annual muskrat surveys have been conducted in the Peace-Athabasca Delta by collaborative teams of local Indigenous land users and Parks Canada resource conservation staff. Members of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and Fort Chipewyan Métis Local 125 conduct the surveys in study areas within their respective traditional territories where muskrats are known to reside.
The surveys are conducted in early winter when the muskrat houses can be reached by snowmobile. In each study basin they count the number of muskrat houses and also measure snow depth, ice thickness, and the depth of water beneath the ice.
For More Information:
A/ Resource Conservation Manager
Wood Buffalo National Park