There's little that links coyotes and muskrats. One is a canine, prefers dry land and regularly roams a home range that can be as big as 25 square miles. While the other can remain under water for many minutes at a time and occupies a home range that doesn't often exceed 10 acres.
But there is this: In North Dakota, hunters and trappers take more coyotes and muskrats than any of the state's many other furbearers, such as beaver, red fox, badgers and raccoons.
While coyotes and muskrats garner the most interest most years, all of North Dakota's furbearers are receiving more attention of late from hunters and trappers. The reason for the increased interest is that fur prices for most furbearers have steadily improved the past four years, and last season's prices set some highs not seen in many decades, said Stephanie Tucker, North Dakota Game and Fish Department furbearer biologist.
"These prices have stirred the interest in many people, including newcomers and veterans who are dusting off their traps, hoping that the good prices will remain high or continue to go up," Tucker said. "Currently, the fur price forecast for this year is optimistic."
Prices paid for last season's muskrats (about $7 on the carcass and $14 for those skinned, fleshed, stretched and dried), for example, were the highest they'd been since 1963-64, while coyotes (about $37 on the carcass and $64 for those skinned, fleshed, stretched and dried) hadn't been that high since 1986-87.
"The extreme was bobcats, which sold higher than ever seen before in North Dakota at about $662 on the carcass," Tucker said. "Even badgers and raccoons are worth going after these days, with fox and mink holding their own as well."
While the price of a bobcat is impressive, Tucker said only about 30 people are taking bobcats in North Dakota per year. "Most take just one," she said, "and the most bobcats any one person takes in a year is five or six."
The fur market, Tucker said, is driven by the garment industry and fur is back in demand in many European and Asian countries, with China leading the charge.
"China's economy is doing well and they want fur, particularly high volume items like muskrats," Tucker said. "Cold winter weather in the northern Asian countries, particularly Russia, aids in increasing prices because fur is still the warmest material available."
If you go by the number of phone calls to the Game and Fish Department this year and last, interest in trapping and hunting furbearers in North Dakota is climbing. Trying to distinguish this rise simply by license sales, however, is often more difficult.
"In 2012, for example, nearly 15,000 people bought the furbearer hunting/trapping license," Tucker said. "But that doesn't tell the entire story because that same year nearly 60,000 people bought a combination license, which allowed them to not only hunt or trap furbearers, but to shoot pheasants and catch fish."
For certain, a percentage of people who don't actively hunt or trap furbearers buy the combination license just in case they come across a coyote while deer hunting.
In an early 2013 fall preview, Tucker said coyote, raccoon and skunk populations increased statewide, and the numbers of all three species remain well above their long-term averages.
Yet, after experiencing the highest muskrat numbers in a decade during 2010-11, surveys show the population has fallen statewide and is 84 percent below the 20-year average.
The reason for the muskrat decline, Tucker said, isn't easy to pinpoint, but could be result of loss of habitat, wetland drainage, cattail burning, chemical runoff, or the combination of all of these factors and other unknowns.
"There is no easy answer as to why," Tucker said. "If you kept everything on the landscape the same every year, you'd still see some fluctuations in muskrat numbers.",
While it's impossible to count every muskrat, badger and coyote on the landscape, Tucker said the Game and Fish Department does a number of annual surveys with trappers and hunters to help determine trends in furbearer populations.
Wildlife managers have also worked for years with rural mail carriers in North Dakota. "They've been helping us count animals on the landscape for decades," Tucker said. "They're covering 40,000 to 50,000 miles over a three-day period on more than 100 mail routes. They just love to help."
The rural mail carriers are on the lookout for 10 furbearer species, which include coyote, fox, muskrats, beavers, mink, fishers, badgers, skunks, raccoon and weasels. Research has shown, Tucker said, that the mail route surveys are very reliable in providing the rise or fall of the number of animals on the landscape from one year to the next, especially for fox and coyotes.
North Dakota has long been home to dedicated trappers and predator callers. While the ranks grow when fur prices rise, there are those who run trap lines year after year no matter what the market dictates.
"For me, and for other trappers, I would imagine, trapping is almost addictive," Tucker said. "There is a huge challenge in trapping to get an animal to step right there in that little spot, or to swim right here ... It takes a deep understanding of wild animals because they can walk anywhere out there, but as a trapper I need them to step right here. There is a rush walking over a hill to check your traps and wondering if you've caught something."
Tucker also calls predators and says the differences aren't huge. "While predator calling is different, you're still trying to outsmart the animals," she said. "You have to understand the animals and understand the calls that will get them to stop what they are doing and respond to what you're doing."
Nonresidents have for years been attracted to North Dakota's wide open spaces and furbearers. Tucker said the state started selling nonresident fox and coyote hunting licenses in 1989, and the number of licenses sold has been going up since.
North Dakota also sells trapping licenses to nonresidents from states that allow North Dakotans to trap within their borders. For a long time, Tucker said, the number of reciprocal licenses sold to nonresidents was low and held steady.
"But in the last three years the number has gone up as fur prices have gone up," Tucker said.
Fifty to 60 percent of the licensed nonresident trappers are from Wisconsin, Tucker said. North Dakota does not have a reciprocal trapping agreement with Minnesota.
While the biggest lure for nonresident trappers is the state's abundance of furbearers, Tucker said North Dakota's liberal trapping regulations also provide some pull.
"For example, we don't require traps to be checked every 24-48 hours like a lot of other states," Tucker said. "And you can use about any kind of trap you want in North Dakota."
On the other hand, North Dakota is a stickler in its regulations for all trappers when it comes to getting permission to trap on private land, posted or not.
"Getting written permission from landowners can be a time consuming endeavor and is probably the biggest deterrent for nonresidents not wanting to come here," Tucker said. "My husband and I will spend several days or make weekend trips to get written permission each fall. Yeah, it takes time, but it's necessary."
The arrival of nonresident trappers is overlooked by most, but some resident trappers take notice and have at times voiced their concerns.
"The top complaint is that people don't like to share when there is money to be had … That's pretty much what it comes down to," Tucker said. "Nonresident fur harvesters don't really fall into the category of recreational trappers as they are trying to remove as many animals as they can in as short a period of time as they can. I've talked to many of these guys and a lot are not just trapping on public land, but going to the trouble of getting written permission on private lands. They've established good relationships over the years and come back year after year."
While trapping doesn't attract the number of participants of, say, upland game bird or deer hunting, its roots are still deep in North Dakota's outdoor heritage. The Game and Fish Department and other groups have been working to pass on the tradition and sense of adventure that trapping affords.
"Because we don't have the number of people who trap like they used to, it's more and more difficult to get kids involved, to have some of this hard-earned knowledge passed along," Tucker said. "We are trying to change that to some extent with our Fur Harvester Education program. It's important that the knowledge and expertise of our instructors is passed along."
Coyote Catalog Available for Hunters, Landowners
The North Dakota Department of Agriculture and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department have reopened the Coyote Catalog to connect coyote hunters and trappers with landowners who want fewer coyotes in their areas.
The Coyote Catalog is an online database similar to the one the Game and Fish Department uses to connect deer hunters with farmers and ranchers.
"We’ve had a lot of success matching deer hunters with landowners," said Game and Fish Department Director Terry Steinwand. "We hope the Coyote Catalog works out just as well."
Department of Agriculture officials estimate livestock producers in North Dakota lost more than $1 million last year to coyotes. At the same time, coyotes are a popular furbearer species for hunters and trappers.
"I encourage landowners, especially farmers and ranchers who have problems with coyote depredation, to sign up for the Coyote Catalog," said Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. "Hunting and trapping are valuable tools in managing these predators."
Goehring and Steinwand said the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services should be the first contact for landowners experiencing coyote depredation of livestock.
Landowners can sign up on the North Dakota Department of Agriculture website at nd.gov/ndda/coyote-catalog. Required information includes county and contact information.
Hunters and trappers can sign up at the NDGF website at gf.nd.gov.
Periodically throughout the winter, hunters or trappers will receive information on participating landowners, and they can then contact landowners to make arrangements.
Although the Coyote Catalog does not guarantee a good match for every participating landowner or hunter, Goehring and Steinwand said it has great potential to focus hunting or trapping pressure in areas where farmers and ranchers are experiencing coyote depredation problems.
Anyone who registered for the Coyote Catalog in the past must register again to activate their names on the database.
The Coyote Catalog will remain active through March 31, and then start up again next winter.
North Dakota Cooperative Fur Harvester Education Program
The North Dakota Cooperative Fur Harvester Education Program sponsors fur harvester education classes periodically across the state.
The free 16-hour courses are generally held two nights per week, plus an eight-hour field day. Students will learn about traps, trapping and snaring techniques, furbearer biology and fur care. A field day allows students to make a variety of land, water and snare sets.
For more information about upcoming courses, visit the Fur Harvester Education Program page.
Upon completion, graduates are issued a certification card that is recognized by any state requiring trapper education prior to purchasing a license.