By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – They are large, ravenous, semi-aquatic, nocturnal, orange- toothed rodents destroying marsh vegetation and Maryland officials would shoot them all dead if they could.
But they can’t.
So officials told a House subcommittee Thursday they need $4 million a year for the next five years to trap the South American beaver-like creatures known as nutria, eradicate them from the Delmarva Peninsula and restore the wetlands they have damaged.
Under a bill introduced last month by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R- Kennedyville, the federal government would pick up no more than 75 percent of the cost of nutria eradication on the Eastern Shore, with administrative expenses capped at 10 percent.
“It is time for action and it’s time to eradicate nutria whose insatiable appetite for our wetlands ecosystem knows no bounds,” said Gilchrest, who chairs that Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans.
His bill would reauthorize funding to help eliminate nutria and restore marshland damaged by the animals. Officials said 7,000 of the 17,000 acres of marsh in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County have already been damaged by nutria and more wetlands face future threat.
While the Bush administration supports ridding fragile ecosystems of invasive species like nutria, funding is a worry, said Cathleen Short, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She said she was concerned by the bill’s high federal cost-share and high administrative expenses provision.
“Although the service fully realizes the threat posed by nutria to the integrity and function of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, we must prioritize nutria management within the context of hundreds of other high-priority invasive species problems nationwide,” Short said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will cost $20 million to get rid of nutria and repair the damage they have done. Short could not say Thursday how much the federal government would be willing to spend to rid Maryland of nutria, which were introduced in the 1950s to boost the state’s fur industry.
Gilchrest’s bill comes after a three-year, $2.9 million study on the dangers of nutria, and their living and eating patterns.
Edith Thompson, the invasive species coordinator at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, estimated that there are nearly 193,000 acres of nutria habitat on the lower Eastern Shore. She told the subcommittee Thursday that the warm winter has been good news for the creatures, which breed best during spring and fall.
“We would shoot them if they were above ground, but we don’t have that opportunity as much as we would like,” Thompson said.
Poisoning the creatures was considered, but Thompson said nutria-targeted traps is considered the best option, even though another speaker said the traps may also kill a small number of beavers and muskrats.
Getting funding for the project is crucial because nutria feed by removing entire plants, which inevitably harms native species in the Chesapeake Bay watershed like the blue crabs, said Kevin Sullivan, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Program.
“It’s a very large issue because it affects the health of the whole Chesapeake Bay, one of the world’s largest estuaries,” Sullivan said, “and the nutria have an extremely large impact on the survival of that ecosystem.”