Louisiana declares war on the nutria

Like Md., state aims to halt marsh damage by trapping


Greg Linscombe, a gruff Louisiana wildlife biologist, is an unlikely fashion setter, but these days he is paying attention to trends in fur.

"People dress more casually now," he said. "You see women wearing fur with a pair of jeans, or fur trim mixed in with their ski fashions. You're really seeing it more in boutiques right now than major department stores."

Linscombe's interest in fur has everything to do with his job: protecting Louisiana's marshes. Since the 1980s, he says, 100,000 acres of marshland have been devastated by rapacious fur-bearing rodents called nutrias, which feed on grasses.

A South American species, nutrias were introduced to Louisiana in the 1930s. Their pelts are used to line coats, and for a half-century their population was held in check by trappers. But when the fur market collapsed in the 1980s, so did the number of trappers - to about 1,000 today from 12,000 - and the nutria population exploded.

This fall, Louisiana will pay $1.6 million to get trappers back in the field. State officials say they do not expect to eradicate the animal. But they hope that slowing the damage will begin the arduous task of rebuilding the state's fragile wetlands.

Nutrias are semiaquatic, beaver-size rodents. Big, wet rats - but hidden beneath their shaggy coat is a layer of velvetlike underfur, which took the fashion industry by storm in the 1930s.

Folklore has long held that it was E.A. McIlhenny, the Tabasco sauce magnate from Avery Island, La., who introduced nutrias to the United States during the Depression. That is now in question. But there is no doubt that McIlhenny, and other fur farmers, released hundreds of nutrias in the 1930s and '40s.

In the wilds of Louisiana, the animal quickly became a staple of alligator diets. But the alligators could not keep pace with the nutrias' reproduction. At least until the 1980s, trappers picked up the slack.

In 1976, when nutria pelts fetched what today would be $23, the harvest peaked at 1.9 million animals. Two years ago that number had fallen to 20,000. This fall, the state will pay trappers $4 for every nutria tail they bring in, with a goal of killing 400,000 a year.

"We hope if we do that for three to five years we'll see a reversal in the damage," Linscombe said.

There are uncertainties, but Linscombe says they should be answered quickly.

"The thing that's different about this than most wetlands restoration projects," he said, "is we won't have to wait 20 years to see if it worked. If it's not working we can tweak it next year."

Maryland - which got nutrias from McIlhenny in the 1930s at the request of the federal Fish and Wildlife Service - has also begun trapping nutrias. An estimated 50,000 nutrias have eaten away at 8,000 acres of Chesapeake Bay marshland.

But Maryland's goal is eradication, and officials decided against Louisiana's approach.

"Bounty systems have met with limited success in the past," Kevin Sullivan, the federal Agriculture Department's official in charge of the Maryland program. "They just don't resolve the problem. What's to keep someone from bringing in nutrias from out of state for the bounty?"

In the Chesapeake, 12 federal trappers in two 40-acre plots are testing trapping techniques. Whichever works best will be used.

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