- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - At one national wildlife refuge in Louisiana, hunters who want to go after alligator must first kill 500 of the invasive rodents called nutria that threaten the wetlands where both live.

Tying the two together instead of having separate programs helps control nutria at the 4,200-acre Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge in southern Terrebonne Parish, said assistant manager Brian Pember. He just began taking applications for a new round of two-year permits.

“They have to get their nutria first,” he said. “The guys who have permits to get alligators this year got their nutria last fall.”

Edmond Mouton, who heads the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ fur and alligator program, doesn’t know of any other program in the state that links nutria control to alligator permits, department spokesman Robert “Trey” Iles said Tuesday.

Nutria - web-footed rodents with orange buck teeth and rat-like tails - average 12 pounds and eat wetlands plants down to the ground. That kills root systems that hold the fragile land together.

When fur was high fashion, hunting kept nutria under control. There’s so little market now that, until Louisiana began a bounty program in 2002, the rodents ate out 80,000 to 100,000 acres of wetlands a year. A $5 bounty on nutria tails has cut that to 4,600 acres or less a year, according to the control program run by Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Pember said that, rather than having separate programs for nutria and alligator, the refuge has tied them together since 1998. Applicants for the joint permits must participate in the Coastwide Nutria Control Program, which collects tails to verify trappers’ totals. It paid $1.7 million to 274 trappers last year, according to data recently posted on the program’s website. More than 93,300 of the 349,200 tails collected came from Terrebonne Parish.

Alligator hunting, on the other hand, generally pays for itself and is tightly controlled because alligators once were endangered because of hunting.

The state decides, based on the number of alligator nests in a given area, how many of the big reptiles may be harvested there each year. Typically, Pember said, Mandalay gets 85 of the tags needed to legally kill an alligator, and divides them between two hunting permits.

About 25 people usually apply, and a lottery chooses the two winners, Pember said. Participants keep all of the proceeds from nutria but pay 25 percent of their alligator proceeds to the refuge.

Past permits have been for three years, to reduce paperwork at the one-person office. Pember, who has been refuge manager for three years, said he’s going for two-year permits to give more hunters a chance.

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