Outdoor Corner: Nutria Rat - The Bounty Rises
The correct pronunciation of nutria is "new-tree-a" most south Louisianans and Cajuns say it "new-tra." Either way the name usually conjures up giant rats and a yuck or two, especially from the ladies. And it's understandable.
The nutria is a large semi-aquatic rodent. They are smaller than a beaver but larger than a muskrat. But unlike beavers or muskrats it has a round, slightly haired tail. That's why the "rat" is usually added to the end of the noun "new-tra rat."
In the 1930's the critter was imported from fur farms and released, either intentionally or accidentally, in the Louisiana marshes. Soon after, feral populations were established near the Gulf Coast because they breed year round and are extremely prolific.
Males reach sexual maturity between four and nine months, while females reach sexual maturity between three and nine months. With a gestation period of only 130 days in one year, an adult nutria can produce two litters and be pregnant for a third. The number of young in a litter ranges from 1-13 with an average of 4.5 young.
They don't waste time in between litters as females can breed within a day of having a litter. The young nutria at birth are fully furred and the eyes are open. Besides nursing, baby newborn nutria are able to feed on vegetation within hours (this is the problem we're getting to).
The nutria continued to expand their range from there as they were trapped and relocated into marshes from Port Arthur, Texas to the Mississippi River in 1941. Later that year, a hurricane further dispersed nutria populations in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana.
Man in his feeble attempts to correct another invasive species, the water hyacinth, began to promote them as biological agents for controlling aquatic weeds. This led to intentional transplanting throughout southeastern Louisiana. Rapid population growth followed for several years thereafter.
Nutria are strict vegetarians, consuming their food both on land and water, where they shove aquatic plants to their mouths with their forepaws. These animals consume approximately 25 percent of their weight daily. They also construct burrows in levees, dikes and embankments further enhancing land damage.
In the mid 50's reports started coming in describing the damage done to marshes, rice, sugarcane fields, and levee systems as nutria populations soared to 20 million animals. Biologists described areas where nutria had completely denuded natural levees at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
If damaged areas do not revegetate quickly, they will become open water as tidal scour removes soil and thus lowers elevation. Frequently, nutria grazing damages the plant's root systems, making recovery through vegetative regeneration very slow.
The marsh had been weakened by severe over-grazing, and in 1957 Hurricane Audrey hit southwestern Louisiana. Its storm surge further weakened the marsh as a huge wave of seawater pushed thousands of nutria inland, accelerating the rate at which the animals spread.
As the state promoted nutria fur as a natural resource, efforts to manage nutria as a pest began to compete with the growing fur industry. From 1962 to 1982, 1.3 million nutria were harvested annually for their fur from the coastal marshes. Reports of nutria damage declined substantially, and periodic severe weather helped to reduce populations.
Mostly because of PETA, the international fur market began to shrink during the mid-1980s, and as a result harvest levels substantially declined. Reports of significant nutria damage to the wetlands began coming from coastal land managers during the 1987-88 harvest season, which had been dramatically less productive than previous years due to the declining fur trade and stock market crash of 1987. Aerial surveys in 1988 confirmed damage was occurring, particularly of the southeastern marshes.
In the 1990-91 harvest season, only 134,000 nutria were harvested. Aerial wetland damage surveys began in earnest in 1993 and were conducted again in 1995, 1996, 1998-2002. Survey results clearly show that nutria damage in recent years is concentrated in southeastern Louisiana.
In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed an appropriation to address Brown Marsh Dieback and to provide funds for a number of research studies on nutria. The Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act, also known as the Breaux Act, has provided grant funding for coastal restoration and conservation.
After reviewing a number of possible methods to reduce the population, the report concludes that the incentive payment program (the bounty) is the best option for coast-wide control. The report confirms the method advocated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Licensed trappers would collect $5 dollars for each hairy tail turned in. This program was put in place when the trapping season opened in November 2002.
Prior to the Coastwide Nutria Control Program, estimates of vegetative damage caused by nutria encompassed as much as 102,585 acres and was documented in at least 11 Coastal Wetlands Planning Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA) project sites in the Barataria-Terrebonne Basins.
Since the introduction of the Coastwide Nutria Control Program in 2002, the number of impacted acres has dropped as low as 4,181 acres (2014). The high was 102,585 acres in 1999. In 2015 the acres affected started a slow climb up to 16,424 in 2018 so a decision to up the bounty to $6 dollars was made.
There was even a push to promote the animal as a viable food source. You know if Cajuns like to eat something, the population will surely decrease. I have cooked them before in a sauce piquant and they are quite tasty, actually better than a rabbit. Nutria burgers are quite popular as well.
They are strict vegetarians. The texture and the appearance of the meat is just fine. But alas, the hairy tail and the rat-like appearance turns most folks off. We'll have to stick to the bounty program. So until next time, remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard. Be safe in the outdoors, and may God truly bless you!
Lyle Johnson is a free-lance writer, co-host of Ascension Outdoors TV and Curator of the Louisiana State Fish Records. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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