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Wild Thing: Missing Muskrat of the Pecos

Few Pecos River muskrats remain in West Texas.

By Jonah Evans

Ask a Texan to name the state’s mammals and you’ll hear all about bears and ocelots, ringtails and raccoons, beavers and bats. Probably last on the list, if mentioned at all, is the muskrat. Except for a brief stint in the spotlight when the song Muskrat Love was popular, muskrats may be the most overlooked Texas mammal of all.

A muskrat is a small beaver-like animal, but with a long, thin tail in the place of the beaver’s characteristic flat tail. The muskrat’s tail is slightly flattened, but vertically.

While swimming, the muskrat waves it from side to side in a manner that looks much like an aquatic snake. The muskrat does not have webbed feet like most aquatic mammals, but boasts a fringe of stiff, bristly hairs around each toe that helps push water. Muskrats have thick, insulating fur once harvested by fur trappers.

While muskrats were once found throughout Texas, they are now primarily restricted to the eastern portion of the state. One of the most interesting subspecies, however, is the Pecos River muskrat, found in West Texas along the Pecos River and the Rio Grande.

indigo snake

The Pecos River muskrat is also found in one other spot: the town of Balmorhea, famous for the spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park. How did that happen? After all, Balmorhea is separated from the Pecos River by more than 30 miles of desert.

A group of muskrats likely made their way up from the Pecos River along small, intermittent streams during a wet season. These animals would have survived quite isolated from other muskrats for a very long period of time. One historical factor to consider: Before the wetland was drained and the water diverted for agricultural purposes in 1914, there was more connectivity between the Balmorhea wetland and the Pecos River.

In 1981, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Danny Swepston surveyed for muskrats in West Texas and found their populations to be declining. His report warned that without active measures to conserve this animal, the Pecos River muskrat could disappear from West Texas altogether.

Today, the status of the Pecos River muskrat in West Texas is largely unknown. Populations continue to persist in El Paso and farther north up the Rio Grande. They are also known to occur in the New Mexico portions of the Pecos River. Whether some small groups of muskrats still occur in the lower reaches of the Rio Grande or Pecos River is unknown. There have been no confirmed sightings since the 1981 report.

 

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