WASHINGTON – Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, testified on Capitol Hill Tuesday in an effort to win $1.3 million in federal funds for a pilot program to eradicate a rodent linked to marsh erosion.
“The little critters can get up to 20 pounds and look just like a rat – they’re called nutria,” Gilchrest said to the House subcommittee, describing the destructive marsh dweller with a voracious appetite for wetland plants and a non-stop breeding cycle.
Gilchrest is asking the federal government to come up with $1.3 million in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2000 budget – about 75 percent of the planned nutria eradication pilot program. State and private sources have already raised their combined $1 million share.
Congress passed a bill last fall establishing a $2.9 million pilot program to devise ways to eradicate nutria, a non-native species originally introduced to the Eastern Shore in the 1950s to boost the fur industry. No funding was actually allocated to the project at that time.
At Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, where the pilot program will be conducted, they are ready for the injection of federal funds, according to Keith Weaver, an assistant manager at the Cambridge refuge. “As soon as we know we have funding we’ll start hiring trappers” and researchers, he said.
Blackwater has lost 7,000 of its original 17,000 acres to erosion.
With no natural predators in Maryland and a year-round reproductive cycle, population of the voracious marsh eaters has boomed as demand for its fur has fallen and attempts to market its meat have failed. The more they eat, the more marsh plants are destroyed and the fewer barriers there are to natural erosion of the wetland areas.
Gilchrest was one of about 50 members of Congress to pitch funding requests to the House appropriations subcommittee. A committee staff member said the panel was collecting information Tuesday, but she would not comment on the chances of those requests.
In addition to the nutria funds, Gilchrest asked for money for two other Chesapeake Bay-related programs:
— $450,000 to boost a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to rebuild Smith Island and protect it from continued erosion.
— $250,000 for a public-private program to restore 2,010 miles of stream bank and shoreline forests by 2010.
Although he said he feels these are urgent and necessary programs, Gilchrest said he is “confident the funding will come through for all of them.
“We’re not asking for the world,” he said.