Mink in the Mountains

No matter which side of the fashion fur fence you fall on (fur or against) mink, the animal, is an intriguing little beast.

Mink live wild in the North Carolina mountains.  They are not as prevalent as populations in the coastal wetlands, but they are definitely part of our ecology.  Chances are you will never see one. They are small ( one to three pounds) and live in secluded hiding places. They are long and lean with a tapered nose, a bit like a ferret. 

Mink aren’t aggressive toward humans, but they can be very vocal and dynamic.  They growl, hiss, and extrude an uber-foul scent from their anal glands.  When content, they purr.

Mountain mink thrive in the proximity of water.  They are great swimmers and fishers, snapping up minnow-sized fish with their slightly-webbed paws and sharp teeth.  They can climb trees where they catch insects, small birds, and small mammals, though spotting one in a tree would be a rare sight as they prefer to spend their time on the ground hunting for food.  Small amphibians and reptiles are part of their diet as well. When diving for food, their lustrous black or brown fur is an insulating wet suit. 

But what they love to dine on the most are muskrat.  Geriann Albers, Assistant Furbearer and Black Bear Biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission says of this elusive animal’s food preferences, “If you want to know if mink are around, look for muskrat and muskrat sign.  They love to eat muskrat and if muskrat are in a stream, lake or pond, mink will be there, too.”

Mink are not endangered, but trend surveys from the WRC suggest their numbers may be down, more from loss of habitat than harvest.  Since very few studies have been made on them it is difficult to know how they fare.  They were hunted/trapped in the early 20th century when the U.S. fur fashion industry was booming.  That trend faded until recently when the New York Times reported a resurgence.  They are still trapped in North Carolina today, though reports show that few are taken by licensed trappers. Statewide, generally less than 200 are harvested a year.  When compared to 10,000-plus raccoons, they are a small portion of the regulated harvest.  Trapping fur is legal in North Carolina as long as the trapper abides by strict, humane regulations and are properly licensed.

While mink are rarely researched, there are studies occasionally on the organs of trapped or road-killed animals.  Traces of insecticides, mercury, and other chemicals are sometimes present, and they are considered an “indicator species.”  This means levels of chemicals in mink can be an indicator of the overall health of an ecosystem.  It’s a warning sign not just for mink, but all animals in the ecological food chain. 

Albers says of the importance of mink to our region, “Mink are a really important predator for small mammals in our state and help keep some of our rodent populations in balance.  They’re really a fascinating and not well-known North Carolina resident.”

You can learn more about mink by visiting ncwildlife.org/Conserving/Species and looking for the mink profile under the “mammals” section.