Captive nutria at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Virginia wildlife officials have been working since the 1960s to wipe out a giant rodent known as a nutria, which in captivity can be a lucrative source of fur but in the wild can rapidly transform wetlands into barren mudflats by eating away at vegetation.
Blessed with a prominent set of curved front teeth and a long ratlike tail, the nutria is “either so ugly it’s cute or maybe just not so cute depending on how you look at it,” said Ryan Brown, director of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.
But despite nutria’s unpleasant qualities, state wildlife officials would like to be able to both possess them — and, in the language of the law, “liberate” them. Their reasons are anything but benign: If they can possess nutria, they can collect urine and fecal samples from them to create lures that can be used to trap other nutria. And if they can both possess and liberate them, they can catch the rodents, outfit them with monitoring equipment and release them back into the wild to ferret out other individuals via telemetry.
“Where you find one nutria, sometimes you find others,” said Brown. And with the monitors, “You don’t lose track of the one you’ve got. He’s not getting free or spreading out anywhere.”
What’s keeping the Department of Wildlife Resources from marshaling these strategies is a state law that flatly prohibits anyone from possessing, selling, offering for sale or liberating “any live fur-bearing animal commonly referred to as nutria.”
A bill proposed by Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, would grant an exemption from that prohibition to DWR employees, as well as researchers and wildlife managers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“That was a blanket prohibition,” said Mike Fies, a DWR wildlife research biologist. “We just wanted some extra flexibility.”
The department is particularly eager to get its hands on a few more tools to combat nutria right now. While the chunky rodents first showed up in Virginia’s Back Bay area in 1956, likely after escaping from fur farms in North Carolina, they largely remained confined to the southeastern part of the state, with populations peaking in the mid-1970s.
Until now, that is. Much to wildlife officials’ horror, a nutria was killed by a car near the Chickahominy River just south of Providence Forge in January 2020. And while the only good nutria may indeed be a dead nutria, that specific dead nutria’s presence signaled that for the first time, the species had ventured north of the James River. Subsequent monitoring has detected the animal at 10 sites along a 10-mile stretch south of the original fatality.
“Our ultimate goal will be to eradicate them completely from the state,” said Fies. “We can at least try to push them further south and stop that spread north of the James.”
What DWR hopes to avoid is a situation like the one Maryland found itself in at the end of the 20th century. There, nutria populations increased to such an extent that they destroyed more than 5,000 acres of wetlands in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, leading to a federal-state partnership to eradicate them from Maryland’s portion of the Eastern Shore. After the removal of some 14,000 nutria, 19 years and almost $25 million, the species appears to have been completely wiped out, with the last confirmed capture on the Delmarva Peninsula occurring in May 2015.
“Recent expansion of the nutria population in Virginia not only threatens important wetland habitats in Virginia, but it also increases the chances of reinvasion into the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland’s … eradication zone,” one DWR brief from April 2021 warned.
Since then, federal funds have been rerouted from Maryland’s program to Virginia, and Fies said that the state is fine-tuning an eradication plan in conjunction with the USDA, the Fish & Wildlife Service and Virginia Tech.
Whether that plan will include strategies like trapping nutria and tracking them via telemetry will depend on the fate of Edmunds’ bill. The law sailed through a House subcommittee <last> week with no one shedding any tears over the commonwealth’s unwelcome residents.
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