WASHINGTON – A House subcommittee gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that would give Maryland $2.9 million to eliminate nutria, the semi-aquatic rodents that are destroying the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R- Kennedyville, would fund a three-year pilot program to trap the rodents and track them or kill them.
The goal of the program is to develop an effective way to eradicate nutria and, in turn, help restore the wetlands the animals are eating their way through.
Three areas would be studied in the pilot program: Intensive trapping and hunting will take place at Tudor Farms, near the Transquaking and Chicamacomico rivers, and at the Blackwater refuge, while the head of Fishing Bay will be left alone as a reference area for the study.
Nutria are beaver-like rodents that can weigh up to 20 pounds. Native to South America, they were first brought to Maryland in the 1950s to support the fur industry.
The decline of the fur industry, combined with a lack of natural predators, caused the nutria population to explode. While there were less than 150 nutria in the area 30 years ago, today there are an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 on the Eastern Shore.
Nutria forage on marsh plants. By digging up the wetlands, they make these areas susceptible to erosion.
In the 20,000-acre Blackwater refuge, which is home to the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel and more than 250 species of birds, about 7,000 acres have been lost to erosion.
Andrew Baldwin, a wetlands ecologist and professor at the University of Maryland at College Park who has researched the effects of nutria on wetlands, said he thinks the nutria program will help rebuild Maryland’s marshes.
But he said that while eliminating nutria would allow more vigorous plant growth, it will not solve the erosion problem. He said disappearing ground water and the rising sea level are bigger concerns.
Animal-rights groups wondered whether any program could eradicate nutria, which reproduce quickly.
“We wonder if this whole experiment is going to do anything more than just amass a large body count,” said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.
Pacelle said his group does not deny that nutria cause erosion problems, but wonders whether the use of tax dollars to eliminate the animals is appropriate.
An official with the Fund for Animals went further, saying killing nutria is just wrong.
“We are unalterably opposed to the killing of any species. There are always humane ways to solve conflicts between humans and wildlife and we should not always reach for the gun or the trap,” said Mike Markarian, the Fund for Animals campaign director.
But Keith Weaver, a wildlife biologist at the Blackwater refuge, said he does not know of any way to stop the erosion without killing nutria.
Gilchrest’s bill, which passed the Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans on a voice vote Thursday, goes to the full House Committee on Resources next week. It still needs to go to the full House and the Senate after that.
If the program is approved, the funds would be allocated over a three-year period, starting in fiscal 2000. A program biologist, field supervisor and 12 trappers would conduct the trapping and research in the pilot program.
To determine which trapping methods are most effective, a combination of different traps would be used, including cages, snares, drowning cages and baited sites. The trappers will also shoot nutria and mark them for population studies and radio- tracking.
The bill, which was introduced July 27, could pass before Congress adjourns this year if it can piggyback onto a larger bill, said Erika M. Feller, Gilchrest’s senior legislative assistant.