WASHINGTON – Supporters hope for a quick vote on a bill calling for $30 million to fight nutria, a South American rodent that looks like a rat-tailed beaver and is wreaking havoc on wetlands in Maryland and Louisiana.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, would allow a coalition of state and federal agencies to implement a plan, due later this month, detailing the most efficient way to exterminate the invasive rodent.
Gilchrest said after a House subcommittee hearing Thursday that he hopes for a House vote as early as next week on the legislation, which would also fund restoration of areas damaged by nutria.
The rodents devour the roots of marsh plants, exposing the mud flats to erosion and robbing smaller animals of places to hide from predators. Nutria have been blamed for the loss of thousands of acres of wetlands in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and their destructive ways reverberate through the food chain.
“There are implications for eagles and you name it. All of the critters that benefit from the ecosystem are negatively affected by the damage that nutria do,” said Mike Slattery, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service division director.
Two Army Corps of Engineers scientists are investigating whether habitats destroyed by nutria can be restored. But for any restoration to work, all of the nutria in the area must be removed.
Federal officials have all but given up on eradication in Louisiana, which is home to millions of the vermin. But officials believe eradication is still possible at Blackwater, which has between 50,000 and 75,000 nutria.
Still, the 14 professional trappers currently working for the federal government at Blackwater face an uphill battle. Nutria mature sexually by 6 months of age, and females can deliver about 15 young a year.
“It doesn’t take long for them to crank out a lot of nutria,” said Ed Soutiere, manager of Tudor Farms, a private nature reserve near Blackwater.
Tudor Farms is part of the coalition, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and others.
Soutiere said commercial trappers have eliminated up to 6,000 nutria in the area in a single year. But once nutria populations thin in one area, the commercial trappers tend to pack up and move to more densely populated — and profitable — areas.
As it is, nutria are not a valuable commodity. Federal officials said their pelts are not worth the work to skin them, and they have fared poorly on area menus.
“If you want to know what a nutria tastes like just think about what the hair of a rat tastes like,” Gilchrest said.
With little market incentive to hunt nutria, annihilating the animals requires a different approach, federal officials said.
“It’s sort of akin to a forest-fire fight or a military exercise,” Slattery said. “You need to really put forth a sustained effort to make sure you get the last ones.”