ANNAPOLIS – There’s a new tactic in the battle against the destruction nutria are causing in Maryland’s marshes. Some conservationists are fighting back – by biting back.
Nutria, mammals resembling small beavers except for their rat-like tails and orange buck teeth, compete with the smaller native muskrats for food in Maryland’s marshes. The devastation for marsh grasses has been such that nutria control gets attention at the Statehouse.
Last year the solution was a bounty bill. This year, it’s a barbecue pit.
Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, has tried barbecued nutria at the annual South Dorchester Outdoor Show, where the Jaycees serve it to win over new nutria eaters. The meat, Colburn said, tastes “pretty good.”
This year’s show is February 24-25 in Golden Hill. But Dorchester County cooks may have competition.
Nick Carter, a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, recently hosted Maryland’s first annual nutriafest, serving barbecued nutria to about 20 guests.
Carter said the taste is similar to pork, “rich-flavored meat, a lot better than muskrat, not nearly as greasy.” And it’s versatile: “You can do just about anything you want with it,” he said, from nutria barbecue to nutria soup to nutria salad.
Carter found nutria for sale at an Eastern Shore country store, after failing to bag any on his own hunt. He later learned from watermen that it’s better to wait for the marsh to freeze to hunt the animals, because nutria can’t hide in the ice like they can in the thick marsh grass.
Maryland isn’t alone in its nutria problem, or in its appetite. Writer Calvin Trillin reports in the February issue of Atlantic Monthly that Louisianans are taking a bite out of the troublesome nutria population there – with nutria chili, nutria fricassee, pan-fried and deep-fried nutria and nutria sauce piquante.
A few years ago, the article said, famed Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme was asked by the Louisiana Nature and Science Center to provide nutria dishes for a nutriafest, which became an annual event. The winner of the last year’s cook-off, Trillin reported, was an “apple-smoked nutria and wild-mushroom crepe in bourbon- pecan nutria sauce.”
Louisiana’s problem, like Maryland’s, stems from fur farming. The rodents originally were imported from South America for their fur.
Peter Jayne, furbearer program manager for the Maryland DNR, said nutria were released or escaped from fur farmers in the 1940s. When the market diminished, the nutria population exploded: to around 100,000 in Maryland today, concentrated in the bay tributaries in Dorchester, Wicomico and Somerset Counties.
Jayne said there is once more a small market for nutria fur. He mentioned that one buyer in the state pays $3 per pelt.
While Maryland’s Eastern Shore has a strong tradition for eating muskrat, Jayne said, nutria don’t have the same popularity. A few volunteer fire companies serve nutria along with muskrat at fundraising dinners, he said.
Among Eastern Shore lawmakers surveyed last week, only Colburn had eaten nutria. But others were willing to try.
Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, said he might eat it if given the opportunity. It’s “a great idea,” he said. “They all need to go.”
Del. Ronald Guns, D-Kent, said “any method to control the population would be better than what’s happening now.” The bounty law enacted last year, he noted, has not been successful.
Del. Ken Schisler, R-Talbot, was a little skeptical. While eating nutria would help, he said, “we’ll never be totally rid of them if we give them any value.”
Eradication “is a huge task,” Schisler said. He underestimated it when considering the bounty bill, he acknowledged. The law only allots enough funding to trim the population, and, Schisler said, “if you’re not going to do the whole job, it’s not worth it.”
Jayne agreed that the bounty law – which set up a program for trappers to lease state-owned marshes and pay off the arrangement with nutria carcasses – was flawed. For starters, the state has too little marshland to lease, he said. Beyond that, there is money to kill only about 1,000 animals per year – a figure Jayne said was about 9,000 short of effective.
The DNR’s Carter, however, maintained that any effort would help the bay.
“It would be well worth it to hunt nutria. It’s good meat and easy to get,” he said.
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