Nibbling at nutria Wetlands threat: Research aims to eradicate the prolific, voracious foreign rodent.

November 09, 1998

HAIRY ALIEN invaders are devouring thousands of acres of Maryland's invaluable wetlands, reproducing faster than rabbits and eating a quarter of their weight in marsh roots each day.

"A pack of brown Pac Men with a taste for precious marshland," the manager of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County calls them.

"A big ugly rat" is a more common description.

The culprit is the nutria, a yard-long, 30-pound rodent from Argentina that was brought to the United States 50 years ago for fur-pelt farming and as a "weed eater" of noxious water plants. Neither scheme was successful, and the survivors escaped to the wild. Out of control, the voracious critters have spread through marshlands in nearly half the states, threatening native wildlife and fish.

Maryland began to develop a plan to eradicate the rodent six years ago. Last month, Congress voted to support that goal, with $2.9 million for study of the nutria's behavior and life cycle.

Some 50,000 nutria are ensconced in Blackwater, which is losing about 500 wetland acres a year to the pest. At neighboring private Tudor Farms, trappers collect $1.25 bounty for each nutria; they catch 5,000 a year, but make no dent in the local population.

Nutria-free fenced areas at Blackwater push the swamp rats into other areas. Trapping and nuisance-shooting efforts have not worked. Researchers are looking at curbing reproduction.

Of course, there's always the Louisiana solution. That state is spending $2 million to develop a public taste for nutria meat, which is lean, low in cholesterol and said to taste like chicken.

Pub Date: 11/09/98

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