May 22, 2007

Trappers Aim to Root Out Nutria From Md.

DEAL ISLAND, Md. -- Federal trappers charged with ridding Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge of nutria have a new mission now that the invasive rodent is clear from the refuge - rooting it out from the rest of the Eastern Shore.

The nutria, a rodent brought to Maryland in the 1940s, has proven a danger to marsh grasses on the Eastern Shore. The South American rodents gobble up marsh grasses from the roots, leaving the land vulnerable to erosion.

The rodents destroyed 8,000 acres of marshland at Blackwater, and now they're moving south. The trappers have followed, stalking pockets of nutria on public and private lands.

Evidence of nutria is easy to spot for the dozen trappers at work. Each man is working 400 to 600 acres of marsh in the Deal Island Wildlife Management Area near the Wicomico River, where trappers recently trapped 200 nutria in two weeks.

According to field supervisor Stephen Kendrot, a wildlife specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the telltale signs of nutria here are the most extensive damage he has seen in a marsh in nearly two years.

"As the marsh is denuded, salt water intrudes farther and trees are destroyed," Kendrot told The (Baltimore) Sun. "It's really a chain reaction to the environment. There are hundreds of species of plants and animals that depend on this marsh."

Outside federal and state lands, the trappers have to get property owner permission before trapping the rodents. That can prove as big a challenge as finding the little rodents.

"Generally, the farther away from Blackwater, the less aware they are of the problem, or maybe they're leery of the government on their property," Kendrot said.

Lingan "Lin" Spicer, a 58-year-old farmer from Church Creek, said he had little interest in allowing nutria trappers on his land until he saw the damage they were doing to 500 acres of his timber and marsh land near Blackwater.

"I was one of the toughest critics, but I'm glad to eat crow," Spicer said. "I don't know of another critter as prolific as nutria, and yet this program has been a big success. I'm not the skeptic I was."

Landowners who have already allowed the trapping say it works. Ed Soutiere, who manages a 6,200-acre Dorchester County hunting preserve, said thousands of nutria once thrived on the marsh, letting out lamblike bleats.

"There was no question the nutria were a catalyst for erosion," Soutiere said. "Forty percent of our marsh has been lost since 1989. It's obvious the only way this will work is to keep at it. If we dabble at it, we might be here doing this for the next hundred years."

Wildlife biologists said the trapping program could meet its goal in another seven years. So far, the program has cost about $1 million a year, Kendrot said.

"What Blackwater has shown us is that the nutria program can work," said Jonathan McKnight, a wildlife biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, one of a host of agencies working together on the program, which started in 1999.

"We have a reachable goal, and it's a worthwhile project to protect the marshes of the bay."


On the Net:

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge:

Maryland Department of Natural Resources:


Information from: The (Baltimore) Sun,