- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

Environmentalists are trying to rid Maryland’s Eastern Shore of nutria — large rodents from South America that have been destroying marshes for decades.

About 20 wildlife specialists have been trapping the nocturnal critters, which they say have played a major role during the past 60 years in eliminating more than 7,000 acres of salt marsh along the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County.

“We are about two years into developing eradication strategies to find biologically and cost-effective ways to remove nutria from this ecosystem,” said Steve Kendrot, field supervisor for the Maryland Marsh Restoration/Nutria Project Partnership. The partnership is made up of federal, state and private agencies that have studied how to control the nutria and restore the marshlands.

“There is no market out there for their fur or meat, so we dispose of them by feeding scavengers such as bald eagles, vultures and crabs,” Mr. Kendrot said.

Since September 2002, the wildlife specialists have caught more than 8,200 nutria in 30,000 acres of federal, state and private land in Dorchester County, Mr. Kendrot said. The partnership is looking for more wildlife specialists to catch more nutria.

The rodents, which have large orange front teeth and ratlike tails, pose the greatest threat to salt marshes in the lower eastern portion of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, including Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset and Worcester counties, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The nutria eat wetland plants and roots, and fragment marshes by creating deep swimming channels that prevent less-mobile, marsh-dependent species from using habitats.

The destruction has led to a significant loss of habitat, which affects fish and crab, nesting waterfowl including black ducks, as well as wetland and song birds.

“A nutria will go into an entire area and destroy that entire area,” said Larry McGowan, deputy project leader for the ChesapeakeMarshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Blackwater refuge. “They spend a lot of their time just eating.”

The rodents also hamper bird-watchers, hunters and anglers. The loss of fish, crabs and ducks also has reduced the value of these areas for local commercial fisheries and local ecotourism, which brings in $15 million each year from visitors to the Blackwater refuge alone.

“The big damage is potential damage,” said Jonathan McKnight, associate director for habitat conservation with the DNR. “We figured that wildlife watching in Maryland is somewhere close to $900 million per year.

“So the degree to that we can’t protect Blackwater, which is one of our primary viewing sites, the whole state economy and especially that around Blackwater will suffer,” Mr. McKnight said.

Nutria breed all year. In 1968, there were about 150 nutria in Maryland, and by the 1970s, the population had grown to tens of thousands, Mr. Kendrot said. “That’s when the marsh really deteriorated,” he said.

Environmentalists estimated the nutria population at 35,000 to 50,000 at the Blackwater refuge and at 52,000 to 75,000 in Dorchester County in the early to mid-1990s, said Dan Murphy, coastal program supervisor for the Chesapeake Bay Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Nutria, native to South America, were imported into the United States between 1899 and 1930 in an attempt to establish a fur farm industry. But many of the farms failed in the late 1940s and the animals were released into the wild.

Mr. Murphy said nutria were first released into 22 states and currently are found in 16, including Louisiana, which has about 20 million.

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