Chesapeake Outdoors

Vol. 8, No. 2
January 13-19, 2000
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Nutria: Nuisance in the Marsh

By the time we slogged the 600 yards (which felt more like 6,000) through detritus, cordgrass and needle rush to a salt pond to hunt the wily black duck, first light — often the best part of the hunt — had come and gone. Erratic, incalculable tides driven by frenetic winds had pushed all of the water out of the guts leading to this secret pond, compelling us to march through the heart of the wetlands without just rewards.

Still, the expansive marsh was at its wintertime best: A place of magnificent beauty that is a powerful recycler of nature’s energy. But amidst this amazing process lurks a disruptive force, a furry wrench clogging the natural efficiency of wetlands. Two of my waterfowl friends call this pond, situated somewhere in Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area in Dorchester County, the ‘nutria pond’ for its over-abundance of this marsh rodent.

This situation, with it devastating results, is all too common in Maryland’s marshes.

A semi-aquatic rodent originally from South America, nutria were introduced into Dorchester County in 1943 via Louisiana, where they were released a decade earlier in the hope of reviving the fur trade. Clearly, the plan backfired. Nutria infest 15 states, creating many problems for all their wetlands.

In Maryland, nutria are foreigners with no true natural enemies to control populations. As a result, nutria have spread as fast as wild fire in Southern California, gobbling up valuable natural resources. It is estimated that nutria populations are now established in at least eight counties on the Eastern Shore. Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources estimates that numbers on one 10,000-acre parcel in Dorchester have increased from less than 150 nutria in 1968 to 35,000 to 50,000 animals today. DNR’s Wildlife and Heritage Division has directed much of its energies toward creating a battle plan to control nutria.

According to DNR, nutria contributions to “the loss and degradation of Maryland’s coastal wetlands has reached alarming proportions.” The state resource agency estimates that more than half of all wetlands, those fragile yet vital ecosystems that filter pollution and sediments, have been lost since the 1700s. Nutria have exacerbated that situation because when they feed, they damage or destroy the entire existing root mat, the intricate fibrous network that binds the marsh together and allows it to work much as a sponge.

Nutria also destabilize streambanks and compete with native furbearers like muskrat and beaver for habitat and food. The nutria’s ferocious appetite so compromises emergent marsh plants that areas thick with vegetation are quickly reduced to exposed mudflats. Wind and tides make these areas highly vulnerable to erosion, and what once was a thriving, rooted plant community becomes open water.

DNR and others who track nutria’s destructive patterns are quick to point out that this marsh rat is not the only reason the marshes, particularly those in Fishing Bay and Blackwater in Dorchester County, have suffered serious losses in the last 10 years. But nutria have accelerated these losses, particularly during the last decade.

So severe is the problem that big guns have been mounted against the furry rat. A nutria task force comprised of DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is at work on techniques to remove the nuisance from Chesapeake Country.
A small part of the strategy is nutria hunting. On a couple of occasions, I have sampled the result, a culinary curiosity provided by a notoriously infamous supplier of nutria, a biologist whose extensive knowledge of the Bay is perhaps only equaled by his passion to single-handedly rid our Bay of this marsh pest. As I recall, the meat was kind of sinewy, even when marinated and cooked over an open flame. But I ate up and went back for seconds, for I have no sympathy for this malicious marsh monster.

Copyright 2000
New Bay Times Weekly