Execution stayed for marsh-eating rodent

August 01, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

BLACKWATER RIVER -- From across the grassy marshes splashed with pink and white hibiscus blossoms and the orange trumpet creeper, the low meowing call of a nutria interrupts the morning solitude.

It is feeding time for the otter-like animal -- which breakfasts on the roots of the three-square bulrush plant -- and at least by legislative intent this should be among the creature's last meals.

But it and the estimated 100,000 other nutrias nibbling away at the state's fragile wetlands can feast at leisure.

An ambitious program to eradicate the exotic animal and help preserve the marshes has been suspended for perhaps as long as the next two years.

Meantime, experts on the nutria fear, the fertile animal could nearly double in number and pose an even greater threat to Eastern Shore tidelands.

The nutria, a rat-faced mammal originally from South America, was introduced in Dorchester County 50 or 60 years ago for its tTC commercial fur value. But the fur market bottomed out and local speculation has it that nutrias either escaped or were let loose into the marshes by their owners.

Once an oddity among such native marsh denizens as the muskrat and the fox, the nutria has spread beyond Dorchester County and has been reported in growing numbers in the lowlands of Somerset and Talbot counties.

While muskrats eat the above-ground strands of the three-square bulrush, nutrias devour the roots, killing the important aquatic vegetation that serves as breeding grounds for fish and migratory waterfowl.

State lawmakers authorized the Department of Natural Resources to begin a systematic killing of nutrias on July 1, but wildlife officials say their original plan to eradicate the animal has to be changed and far more money found before it can begin.

In a presentation to legislators last winter, natural resources officials said nutrias could be nearly wiped out over a 10-year period for about $2.3 million. The concept was to rely heavily upon bounty hunters, who would be paid a stipend for every animal killed out of a portion of the money the state collects each year from the sale of duck-hunting stamps.

Latest estimates put the project cost at nearly $4 million. And because the state takes in about $200,000 annually in duck stamp sales, the 30 percent, or $60,000, earmarked by law for the nutria program does not come close to covering costs, said Peter S. Jayne, head of the Wildlife Division's Upland Game and Furbearer Program.

Largely through the advice of L. M. Gosling, a British zoologist who oversaw the extermination of the coypu -- as the nutria is called in Great Britain -- outside London, Maryland's Wildlife Division decided to redraft its plan with less emphasis on bounty hunters.

After touring Dorchester County and reviewing the state's plan in the spring, Professor Gosling wrote the Natural Resources Department that bounty programs tend to result in sustained hunting, not eradication.

"The problem is that bounty schemes give a value to the nutria, and some people may then want to conserve or husband it as a source of revenue," he wrote.

Appeals for money

Even if there were no need to redraft the plan, finding enough money to launch the eradication program presents a problem.

Mr. Jayne said that in addition to the Wildlife Division's budget for the program, the agency will appeal to the federal government, private sources and other parts of the Natural Resources Department for funding.

But before that can happen, he said, wildlife officials will launch an interim study to get an accurate understanding of how many nutrias populate the marshes, how much damage nutrias cause and how best to capture and kill the animal. Everyone agrees that the extent of nutria damage is hard to quantify.

"What is the impact?" asked Mr. Jayne. "It's bad. How bad? It's terrible."

At the federally operated Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County, nutrias have been considered a problem for decades, said Gary C. Heet, assistant manager.

The refuge's 20,000-acre ecosystem bears pressure from natural wind and water erosion, as well as the rise in the sea level, he said. But Blackwater officials estimate that the nutria has exacerbated the loss of between 5,000 and 7,000 acres of three-square marsh.

Nutrias are so common at Blackwater that Mr. Heet said visitors who spot them eating and swimming sometimes ask if the animals are being taken care of properly.

"We're asked if we're raising these animals," he said. His reply: "We do not try to perpetuate exotic species, especially if they're classified as a pest detrimental to the habitat."

The holdup in the nutria eradication program has prompted sharp reaction from those in favor of and opposed to it.

"I'm disappointed, but I'm not surprised," said Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., D-Dorchester, whose disdain for the nutrias led him to sponsor legislation to get rid of the species.

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