- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2002

LULING, La. Cajun country's No. 1 nuisance, 10-pound swamp rats with orange buck teeth and webbed feet, are Kyle Loupe's cash cow.
Emerging from the bayous in an airboat splotched with blood and Spanish moss, Mr. Loupe plunks down more than 1,200 tails that once wagged from Louisiana's reviled rodents, known as nutria, and will collect $4,824 in return.
Mr. Loupe owes the windfall to Louisiana's 3-week-old, $4-a-tail-bounty program that aims to wipe out 400,000 nutria this winter and save an eroding coastline that has been disappearing at an estimated rate of 30 square miles a year.
Nutria, a nonnative species that has overrun Gulf of Mexico wetlands since the value of their fur plummeted in the early 1980s, devour plants that keep the soil from washing away.
"The nutria run away, but they're not that quick," said Mr. Loupe, who picks off the pests with his .22 rifle. "Sometimes you see two, three, four on a hill, and you get all of them. There's none that gets away."
Louisiana has tried just about everything to get rid of the rodents. Nutria cuisine didn't catch on, and nutria fur coats fell out of favor. Sheriff's deputies still shoot them for target practice, and recreational nutria hunting made its debut last year.
Now, it's time for the professionals.
About 400 hunters and trappers have signed up for the bounty system, known as the Nutria Control Program. In the first week, they turned in 4,863 of the long, hairy tails.
"I expect us to be collecting 8,000 a week, maybe 10,000 if we really get on a hot streak," said Jeff Marx, a state biologist.
Nutria were imported from Argentina in the 1930s because state officials believed they would enhance the fur trade. Among those raising nutria were Tabasco hot-sauce founder E.A. McIlhenny.
But no one anticipated the animals' prodigious breeding prowess, nor their enormous appetite. Alligators are the only predators that commonly eat nutria, and, as the gator population dropped, the rodents have enjoyed free rein to chomp their way through the marshes.
Most are in the marshy areas of south Louisiana, and they've also crept into suburban New Orleans. State wildlife officials say that as many as 100,000 acres of Louisiana marsh show signs of damage from nutria.
The bounty program is getting good reviews.
"I expected anything run by the state to be full of problems, but somebody put a lot of thought into this," said hunter Albert Oberschmidt, who shot 23 nutria and is due a $92 check for the tails.
Mr. Loupe, a commercial crab fisherman, has emerged as the top nutria hunter. The crab season is unprofitable in the winter, so until nutria season is over March 31, he'll make his living switching between fishing for catfish and hunting for nutria.
"What I do is go shoot one day, then give the nutria a day to regroup. We give them a break in between," he said.
Mr. Loupe said that he kills nutria in batches of 50, piling the carcasses into his boat. He uses a machete to chop off the tails and sets them aside. He dumps half of the bodies in the water, and half get buried. Then he goes back for more.
"On a good day, we get about 80 in five or six hours," he said.
But Mr. Loupe's success is the exception rather than the rule. Most nutria hunters are picking up just a few dollars. The state has set aside $1.6 million to pay hunters and trappers, and the $4 bounty isn't designed to make anyone rich, said Kim Barton, a project manager with Coastal Environments Inc., which the state hired to run the program.
"The point is just to kill as many nutria as we can because they're pretty much killing off the state," Miss Barton said.

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