- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

NEW ORLEANS (AP) A price has been put out on some furry, swamp-dwelling varmints in Louisiana's Cajun country.
Starting today, the state of Louisiana will pay a $4-a-tail bounty officials prefer the term "incentive" in hopes of wiping out this winter some 400,000 nutria, nuisance rodents that look like 10-pound rats with webbed feet.
The payment is part of an effort to save Louisiana's coast, which is disappearing at a rate of 35 square miles a year. Nutria, a non-native species that has overrun Gulf of Mexico wetlands since a plummet in the value of their fur in the early 1980s, devour plants that keep the soil from eroding.
Longtime trapper Paul Autin said the bounty may help preserve his way of life a little longer as well.
"It's going to be a big help, and it will keep people out there," Mr. Autin said in a thick Cajun accent. "Years ago, every second or third house out here had trappers. Now I feel like I'm one of the only ones left."
Nutria were brought from Argentina in the 1930s and raised on farms for their fur. Some escaped into the wild. They are so populous now that their flattened carcasses litter southern Louisiana highways whenever high water from a major storm chases them out of the marshes to higher ground.
The state has tried to market nutria meat. Many people say they taste like farm-raised rabbit, and are lean and high in protein. But demand has never been high among Americans, despite the efforts of local gourmet chefs to create recipes for nutria gumbo, sausage, chili and jerky.
"It's really quite good," said Edmond Mouton, a Louisiana native who works for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "People at duck camps would historically cook nutria and say it was marsh rabbit. Everybody ate it, and they wouldn't know the difference unless they were told. So it's all in the mind."
State officials are looking toward China as a potential nutria market. But until Asians go nuts for nutria, the state has decided it will be worth $2 million to pay trappers to kill the rodents.
State wildlife officials say up to 100,000 acres of Louisiana marsh show signs of damage from nutria. The damage ranges from thinning vegetation to land that has been eroded below the surface of the water.
To collect the bounty, trappers must present the nutria tails frozen or salted.
Mr. Autin, who 28 years ago took a full-time job as a swinging-bridge operator because the money in trapping was so bad, said the reward might be just enough to help him break even if he could get an extra dollar or two for the pelt and carcass.


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