Killing nutria saving wetlands

By CAIN BURDEAU
Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The latest survey of wetlands damage by nutria, a voracious grass-eating rodent, shows that a federally funded program to kill the rodents and save wetlands is working, a new report says.

Nutria damaged an estimated 20,333 acres of wetlands between the spring of 2008 and this spring - about 3,000 fewer acres than the previous annual helicopter survey, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries report.

"It's a consistent decrease from year to year," said Edmond Mouton, a state biologist who runs the Coastwide Nutria Control Program. Mouton said the program, funded with federal coastal restoration funds, has proven to work. Under the program, hunters, sharpshooters and trappers get $5 for each nutria tail they bring in.

"We are trying to control nutria to the carrying capacity of the landscape," Mouton said.

A survey in 2003, the program's first year, found that the rodents had damaged about 82,000 acres of wetlands, the report said. Since then, the number of damaged acres has gone down every year except for the period after Hurricane Katrina, the report said.

Nutria are a semi-aquatic rodent from South America brought to Louisiana in the 1930s by fur farmers. Subsequently, nutria got into the wild and they have proliferated in south Louisiana's wetlands. Feral nutria populations are found in 16 states, the report said.

Louisiana has been fighting nutria for decades, starting in the 1950s when nutria were blamed on damaging rice fields, levees and muskrat populations. The nutria control program is part of a larger federal effort to save coastal Louisiana from eroding away.

The state's coast has lost about 2,100 square miles of wetlands since the 1930s due to a number of factors, among them levees, oil drilling, logging and nutria. During the last harvest, between November 2008 and March, 262 hunters and trappers were paid $1.6 million for 334,038 nutria tails.

The new survey found that most of the damage by nutria occurred in Terrebonne and St. Charles parishes, vulnerable wetlands areas near New Orleans in the badly eroded Barataria-Terrebonne Basin.

"In my opinion, if nutria are not controlled, coastal restoration would be much more difficult," said John Day, a coastal scientist at Louisiana State University, an advocate of expanding efforts to kill nutria. "They do enormous damage. They are just ravenous feeders."

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