Continued funding to wipe out the invasive nutria rodent from Maryland’s Eastern Shore is uncertain, as a lame-duck U.S. Congress debates passage of an omnibus conservation bill.
U.S. Senate Bill 3525, also known as the sportsman bill, which covers everything from the price of duck stamps to the use of lead in fishing tackle, includes $6 million for nutria eradication and control programs. Of that total, $2 million was slated for Maryland over the next four years.
The bill was poised to pass the Senate on Monday, but was returned to the calendar as lawmakers debate the cost of implementing the measure. In a busy lame-duck session, the bill also would need approval of the House of Representatives.
Since 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and a group of public and private partners have worked to trap and kill about 13,000 of the rodents on more than 160,000 acres in five counties on the Eastern Shore. The effort is called the Chesapeake Bay Nutria Eradication Program.
“I have to say that the program is going extremely well,” said Jonathan McKnight, associate director of the Natural Heritage Program at DNR. “We’re seeing beautiful marsh recovery.”
Nutria, which resemble large muskrats, were released in the 1940s from captivity in Dorchester County, where they were raised for their fur. Since then, officials say thousands of acres of marshland have been destroyed as the rodents eat their way through the roots of the plants that anchor the marshes.
“The danger is that enough nutria eat themselves out of house and home, and do the same for other species that need the marsh,” McKnight said. “They take your marshes and leave you with huge mud flats.”
The federal funding would go toward protecting the area where nutria already have been wiped out and to expand the 20-member conservation team’s knowledge of where nutria colonies exist. The money also would help develop better ways to detect nutria, which can travel long distances underwater.
New funding would be in addition to the nearly $15.3 million the federal government has allocated to the program over the past 12 years.
Teams already have caught nutria in Delaware, and are preparing to do the same on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
The nutria pose a unique problem, with a unique solution, McKnight said.
“Almost all invasive-species work is control, rather than eradication,” he said. “From a fiscal perspective, that’s a good thing, because it has an end point.”
But that end point isn’t coming anytime soon, said Stephen Kendrot, who is the project leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
“Where the real work begins is in finding those populations outside of the area where they’re known to be,” he said.
The pace of trapping and killing has slowed considerably over the past decade — 5,000 were caught in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge alone during the first year of the program, while only 75 have been caught in the past year in the entire 160,000-acre study area.
But the mating behaviors of nutria make it essential to continue the program to the last rodent, Kendrot said.
“Their capability to repopulate is incredible,” Kendrot said, adding that nutria are ready to reproduce at just a few months old, and females can have three litters a year.
“The original population was no more than a dozen animals that were released, and that grew to thousands of animals,” he said.