WASHINGTON – The House on Tuesday authorized a $30 million, five-year plan to fight nutria, a South American rodent that looks like a rat-tailed beaver and is destroying marshland in Maryland and Louisiana.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, authorizes up to $6 million a year, starting in fiscal 2004, for a coalition of state and federal agencies fighting the invasive rodents. Maryland would get $4 million a year and Louisiana would get $2 million a year.
“Full federal funding is necessary to fight the nutria over the next five years,” Gilchrest said Tuesday on the House floor, adding that without the funding all of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is in danger.
The Nutria Eradication and Control Act expands a previous federal effort, which ended in September, that yielded about $1.7 million over three years to study Maryland’s nutria problem. The higher level of funding would let the coalition expand its current efforts from Tudor Farms, Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area and the refuge to include all of the Chesapeake Bay, said Mike Slattery, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
The act passed the House on a 385-30 vote. It still needs Senate approval, but a spokesman for Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., said, “We support it and we’ll try to get it passed.”
Nutria devour the roots of marsh plants, exposing the mudflats to erosion and robbing smaller animals of places to hide from predators. Implications ripple up and down the food chain, affecting eagles and other species on the Eastern Shore.
Steve Kendrot, supervisor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutria eradication effort, compared the rodent’s impact on the bay to pulling the thread on a sweater. “You pull that thread and the sweater starts to come undone,” he said.
The 14 professional trappers that Kendrot leads face an uphill battle. Since nutria were introduced to the area 50 or more years ago to help the flagging fur industry, their numbers have grown to more than 35,000 animals, according to Kendrot. Gilchrest’s bill puts the number at 100,000 to 150,000.
Although nutria are found in 16 states, Maryland is the only one where the government is attempting to eradicate the rodents. Federal officials have given up on eradication in Louisiana, where they only hope to control a nutria population estimated at more than 1 million.
In Maryland, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is using a combination of old and new technology to fight the rodents, capturing them with traditional snares, body-grabbing and cage traps and then mapping the spot with a global positioning system. This allows Kendrot to evaluate his team’s progress and plan future trapping campaigns.
Around 300 of the rodents have been removed from the Eastern Shore in the first six months of a five-year plan designed to determine whether eradication is possible, Kendrot said.
“It’s easy to get the impression that all is lost,” Kendrot said after a recent tour of the devastated wetlands. But he and others hope that the nutria can be removed and the wetlands restored.