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Sept. 20, 2021

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They’re rodents, of unusual size: War on invasive nutria heats up in Virginia, with collateral damage

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Nutria ??? an invasive, destructive species ??? invaded the southside of Hampton Roads years ago from North Carolina. In 2020, it was discovered that they've crossed the James River, getting a toehold in virgin territory with enough prime habitat to allow their population to boom.
Nutria ??? an invasive, destructive species ??? invaded the southside of Hampton Roads years ago from North Carolina. In 2020, it was discovered that they've crossed the James River, getting a toehold in virgin territory with enough prime habitat to allow their population to boom. (Courtesy Chesapeake Bay Program/TNS) Photo Gallery

YORK COUNTY, Va. — There’s an animal in my freezer that looks like a giant rat.

It was killed because it was acting oddly and because, well, giant rat equals heebie-jeebies.

But mostly, it was dispatched because we’d decided it was a nutria.

And nutria are outlaws: an invasive species that wipes out wetlands, devours crops and digs into dams — so dreaded it has its own wanted poster.

I’ve been keeping the carcass on ice — quadruple bagged — in case some expert wants to take a look.

Imported decades ago for their fur, nutria have been chewing their way north into Hampton Roads for years. Until recently, the James River confined them to the South Side.

But now they’ve breached the Great Wall, getting a toehold in virgin territory, where conditions are even riper for a population explosion.

Sightings are being reported from Hampton to Mathews County, but the only presence that’s been confirmed is on the Chickahominy River, northwest of Williamsburg.

The infiltration was likely launched from Surry County, which nutria expanded into some time ago.

“The James isn’t that wide there and it only takes one pregnant female to make the swim,” said Todd Engelmeyer, regional biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. “It’s a miracle it hasn’t happened before.”

The ecological menace now has a clear path to the Potomac River, where it could cross into Maryland — a state that recently declared itself nutria-free after a $25 million, 20-year search-and-destroy campaign.

“Absolutely the last thing we want to see is them showing up here again,” said Jonathan McKnight, a biologist with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “When I look south into Virginia, I’m really worried — for your sake as well as ours.”

The semi-aquatic rodents, which can top 20 pounds, typically prefer wetlands. With big orange teeth, they indulge their taste for plant roots, consuming a quarter of their body weight daily, creating swathes of dead zones known as “eat outs.”

Coastal marshes become mud flats, then open water. Erosion gets worse. And the vital nurseries and feeding grounds for all sorts of fish, fowl and blue crabs disappear.

“You’ve got some of the most beautiful tidal wetlands on the planet,” McKnight said, “and they serve the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem that we share. To let nutria get in there and run loose would be the ultimate in folly and irresponsibility.”

Federal money bankrolled Maryland’s nutria war — funding that’s now up for grabs for the next front. About $12 million is on the table, destined to be divvied among states that can show the greatest need.

Virginia is pulling together its pitch. Experts are assessing environmental and economic impacts. Signs have been posted at about 50 boat ramps north of the James, asking the public to be on the lookout and report sightings.

So far, most of the checked-out reports have led to muskrats — slightly shier and smaller but with similar features, including long, rat-like tails.

“But muskrats are native,” McKnight said. “They eat the tops of plants instead of the roots, so they don’t hurt the marsh. They’re our friends.”

Thoughts return to my freezer.

Uh-oh.

Finnegan can smell the difference. He’s a yellow Labrador retriever who lives with Engelmeyer in York County.

About a year old and full of “high drive,” Fin homes in exclusively on nutria; he’s the only working dog in the state with such a skill, Engelmeyer said.

“And he does it all for the simple reward of a thrown tennis ball. I’d like to think he loves me, but I’m pretty sure he loves the tennis ball more.”

Fin was trained like the K-9s that detect bombs or cadavers, only with nutria scent. Scat. Urine. Gland odors. Engelmeyer lets him loose to investigate the most probable sightings.

The dog’s nose “smelling in parts-per-trillion is incredibly efficient,” Engelmeyer said, and soggy, muddy terrain is no problem for his webbed feet. If he catches a whiff of nutria, he zeros in and barks. When Engelmeyer catches up, Fin touches the spot with his paw.

“Maybe the nutria’s been gone for over a week, but he still knows if it’s been there.”

Teams of dogs like Fin helped pinpoint the colonies in Maryland, where the invasion story was the same as elsewhere.

Native to South America, nutria — or coypu — were brought to the U.S. in the early 1900s for pelt farming. But when the fur market tanked, they were released or escaped from operations around the country.

In the wild, they thrived in more temperate pockets, establishing themselves in at least 16 states. Females can bear up to three litters a year with as many as 13 young in each, and they’re ready to breed again within 48 hours of giving birth. Predators like foxes and coyotes have a hard time reaching deep enough into the marsh turf. Cold snaps can dent the population but only temporarily.

“In an ideal situation, even with normal mortality,” Engelmeyer said, “one individual can lead to 100,000 in five years.”

Nutria began showing up in Southeastern Virginia in the 1950s, most likely spread from fur farms that were once around the Albemarle Sound in northeastern North Carolina.

“There were no laws or regulations preventing their release,” he said. “Most people probably thought it was a good idea.”

Before long, nutria infested Back Bay and beyond. In the past 20 years, they’ve expanded westward into the Nottoway, Blackwater and Meherrin rivers. In the past five they’ve made it all the way to I-95.

Strawberry farmers have lost crops and waterfront residents have had to deal with undermined bulkheads, but a shortage of “optimal habitat” has kept a natural check on nutria numbers.

The southside’s offerings are often too salty or full of wide-canopy trees that shade out the kind of swamp vegetation nutria favor.

“There’s only so much damage they can do in that system,” Engelmeyer said.

Not so on the north side of the James.

“Pristine freshwater river systems with lots of food,” he said. “We always knew that if they got there, they’d be very difficult to control once established.”

The bad news arrived last year in the form of a suspicious-looking roadkill. It was found near Providence Forge by a man who brought it to Engelmeyer’s office in Charles City.

“We were like, ‘Oh no. This isn’t a muskrat,’” he said.

Maryland detector dogs were brought in to comb nearby areas.

“Fin wasn’t around back then — he’s too young,” Engelmeyer said. “But he’s been working it since.”

The Chickahominy River system, identified as ground zero, is now laden with surveillance to gauge the scope of the problem. Special platforms have been built, sprinkled with alluring scent and deployed to attract the invaders. As nutria climb on board, scat is left behind, snares grab hair samples for analysis, and game cameras snap photos.

So far, they’ve been documented in 10 spots along a 10-mile stretch.

“We’re not seeing large areas of damage yet, so we believe the population is still very small,” Engelmeyer said. “But there’s no room for complacency.”

Virginia hasn’t mounted a large-scale assault before — just a year-round hunting season on the nuisance species. Other states have tried a patchwork of methods. Bounties. Poisonous bait. Birth control. None has done the trick.

Efforts to find uses for nutria haven’t spurred much commercial harvesting. Some meat is used in dog treats but attempts to push it onto dinner plates have fallen flat.

It’s a relatively healthy meat, consumed in some rural parts of Louisiana as well as in other countries.

“But most people just say, ‘no thanks,’” Engelmeyer said.

He’s not most people. He simmered one up in a slow cooker — tasted like pork — and served it to friends. He didn’t tell them it was nutria until after they’d pronounced it delicious.

Were they mad? Not really, he chuckled. But they haven’t forgotten, either.

“Now they all joke: Don’t ever accept an invitation to a dinner party at the Engelmeyer household.”

Just like Maryland needs Virginia to guard its flanks, Virginia needs North Carolina.

“Unfortunately, we’re not as ahead with this as Virginia,” said Colleen Olfenbuttel, a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

She said her state, which only recently learned about the possibility of federal funds, is just starting to ponder its strategy.

“We know we’re sharing our nutria with Virginia,” she said. “And it needs a cooperative approach.”

Maryland’s McKnight said the combat money is critical.

“Only the feds have pockets deep enough to eradicate nutria and only a concerted government effort can do the job,” he said. “You need to put people in the field to get to these animals. You have to kill them all.”

Maryland’s measures called for a protracted attack coordinated between multiple agencies.

In addition to dogs, they employed a tactic known as “Judas nutria” — in which individuals are caught, sterilized, fitted with radio collars, released and tracked back to their colonies.

“We used state-of-the-art technology — geographic information and satellite positioning systems to know exactly where our teams had been and where they needed to be,” McKnight said.

Once the nutria were located, they were shot or caught with lethal traps.

“I’m not surprised they’ve jumped the James in Virginia,” McKnight said, explaining that one colony of about 50 animals appeared to have reached Maryland by swimming across the Chesapeake Bay.

“At its closest point — if they had a GPS and planned the journey — we’re talking about a 6-mile swim.”

If nutria haven’t already crept into the rest of north side Hampton Roads, it’s certainly an easy leap from the Chickahominy.

Aside from the inevitable destruction, “you’ll have this big, rat-like creature that comes and lays around in people’s yards,” said Mike Fies, furbearer specialist with the Virginia department. “It’s not very endearing, especially when you know it’s invasive.”

Which brings us back to my freezer, and the solid, icy block my editor has taken to calling Frank.

We’d never seen anything like Frank in our yards. He ambled out of the marsh behind our neighborhood one day and began prowling our lawns, prompting one neighbor to yell, “There’s a New York rat out here!”

He seemed strangely bold and persistent for a wild creature, reluctant to give ground. We watched him warily for a week, Googling “nutria” until we were convinced. When he got into a scrap with a dog, the dog’s owner grabbed a rake and delivered the death blow.

I sent Engelmeyer some footage of Frank, taken before he landed in my freezer. The biologist didn’t need to see the body in person to know:

“Muskrat,” he texted back.

Cripes.

Engelmeyer said muskrats near urban settings can adapt to humans, especially if it means access to easy food, like our grass.

“There’s a golf course in Hampton where you practically have to shoo them off the tee box so you can hit,” he said.

Sorry, Frank. Really, dude. Feeling bad.

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