WASHINGTON – President Clinton’s fiscal 2000 budget does not include funding for a program to eradicate nutria, beaver-sized rodents that are destroying “some of the most important wetlands in this country.”
But Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, said he is confident that Congress will find the money “to totally eradicate every little one of those monsters down there” in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
Gilchrest last year sponsored a bill for a $2.9 million pilot program to devise ways to eradicate nutria, a non-native marsh rodent with a rat-like tail, voracious appetite and non-stop breeding cycle.
His bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by Clinton on Oct. 30. It called for funding over the next three years for a pilot program that would study nutria and find the best ways to eradicate them, restore wetlands they have destroyed and educate the public.
Since the 17,000-acre Blackwater refuge was opened in the 1930s, about 7,000 acres of tidal marshland has eroded. Refuge managers say nutria have played a major role in the disappearance of those wetlands.
Nutria, which are native to South America, were introduced in Maryland in the 1950s to boost the fur industry. With no natural predators here and a year-round reproduction cycle, the numbers of the semi-aquatic rodent boomed when demand for its fur fell.
Officials estimate that 35,000 to 50,000 nutria currently inhabit Blackwater Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County. The animals, with their bright-orange incisors and voracious appetite for marsh plants, especially roots and submerged aquatic vegetation, have besieged the refuge.
“It would be foolish for us to attempt the reconstruct (the refuge’s marshes) when we have a destructive agent still out in the marsh,” said Keith Weaver, a wildlife biologist at Blackwater.
While Clinton’s budget did allocate money to combat invasive species, like nutria, it is not enough, according to Ron Lambertson, director of the northeast Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“My region received $200,000 for 40 refuges,” Lambertson said. “And a lot of them have invasive species.”
Gilchrest invited Lambertson Monday to the Blackwater refuge to see the damage from nutria firsthand.
“It’s a serious situation,” Lambertson said Thursday. “The extent of the damage was mind- boggling.”
He said that the government pays about $1,000 an acre when it buys marshland in the area in an effort to protect it. Considering that price, and the fact that Blackwater has already lost 7,000 acres of marshland from nutria damage, the $2.9 million in federal funding called for in Gilchrest’s bill would be a good investment.
“The action is clearly up to Congress to make those decisions by October,” he said.
Gilchrest was confident Thursday that federal funds will be approved. He said he has talked to senior members of the House Appropriations Committee and they have “laid out a strategy to ensure the money is there and that the pilot” program will begin by October.
The federal government’s share will only pay for 75 percent of the nutria eradication pilot program. Gilchrest said that state and private sources have already raised their $1 million share, but that there is “no sense in starting before all the pieces are together — and we’ll have them all together this fall.”
Nutria have also become a scourge in Louisiana, where they were first introduced in this country. Weaver said officials there have all but given up on nutria eradication and are focusing now on other solutions, such as creating demand for the animal’s meat and fur.
Maryland’s program envisions not just controlling nutria populations here, but eventually eliminating the animals altogether.
“We’re looking at complete removal. We’re not trying to manage the populations,” Weaver said.