The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced last week that the Department has been awarded $8.5 million in funding to expand its nutria eradication operations.
The funding will be administered over a three year period by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy. The money will be used in conjunction with state funding CDFW anticipates will come from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2019-20 budget.
Officials say the funding will be used to bolster a dedicated Nutria Eradication Program within CDFW.
Last week’s announcement marks the second round of funding from the Delta Conservancy.
In 2018, the Conservancy awarded CDFW $1.2 million over three years that complimented grants from the Wildlife Conservation Board and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s State Wildlife Grant Program.
The Nutria (Myocastor coypus), also known as Coypu, is a semi-aquatic rodent topping out around 20 pounds. The invasive rodents, armed with curved orange incisors similar to beaver, have decimated important marshes and swamps across parts of the United States, and are also regarded as a detrimental agricultural pest.
Some reports boast that a nutria can consume one quarter its body weight in plant material per day. The invasive rodents focus their feeding on vegetation that holds wetlands together, while also burrowing through levees and berms meant to prevent flooding. Females can have litters up to three times per year - producing five or six pups each time.
Ban Trapping, Then Trap Nutria?
Native to South America, the nutria was brought to the United States in the 19th and early-20th centuries by farmers looking to create a market for the animal’s glossy brown fur.
“It’s just like a mink coat – gorgeous,” says nutria expert Gary Witmer, a biologist at the National Wildlife Research Center, during an interview with The Guardian.
Ironically enough, as California receives millions in funding to combat the growing nutria issue, some California politicians are actively seeking to stifle actions within the state that would prove beneficial to the nutria eradication process - at a far cheaper tab.
Just as the extent of the nutria issue was being uncovered in California, the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles enacted bans on the sale of fur products.
California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D - San Diego) introduced Assembly Bill 273 in January of this year, which seeks to outright ban the activity of regulated fur trapping within the state. The bill makes it unlawful to trap any fur-bearing mammal or non-game mammal (such as nutria), for purposes of commerce in fur. The bill also prohibits the purchasing or sale of raw fur, as well as products or handicraft items made from fur-bearing mammals, and would remove the authorization for the sale of wild fur while also eliminating fur dealer and fur agent licenses.
Currently, the CDFW requires and issues trapping licenses for both recreation and pest control.
I never fancied myself much of a scholar, but I suspect the encouragement of a local wild fur market, as well as support for licensed citizens willing to trap nutria for their fur, would certainly aid in a state nutria management program. If nothing else, these aspects of commerce would at the very least create a usable market for an animal otherwise destined for the dumpster.
But while bans on the usage of fur and regulated trapping of abundant furbearers (like nutria) continue from coast to coast, nutria eradication has become a “booming business” for Government agencies along those coasts - from Maryland, to Louisiana, to California.
The First Sign of a Problem
According to reports, the first modern sign of the state’s nutria “issue” came from a licensed trapper working in the wetlands of Central California in 2017. The trapper reported to state biologists that he had caught what he believed was a nutria. At the time, the only known presence of nutria was 500 miles away in Oregon.
Suspicions were confirmed - and to add “insult to injury”, the specimen was a pregnant female, meaning that this one nutria clearly wasn’t alone. As of May 2019, nutria have been confirmed in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Fresno, Mariposa, and Tuolumne counties.
Since March of 2019, the state has killed 410 nutria, with a majority of the eradicated rodents (330 to be exact) coming from Merced County alone.
Invasive nutria were believed to be eradicated from California in the 1970’s.
2017’s discovery comes with much debate as to how the creatures reappeared. Some believe landowners may have introduced nutria to local areas in an attempt to keep water hyacinth in check. Others fear the potential for nutria being released or escaped into California’s waterways by careless citizens keeping the animals as exotic pets.
“We’ve spent millions rehabbing these wetlands in California,” Gerstenberg told reporters in 2018. “If it gets to where there’s 50 nutria per acre, there won’t be anything green here.”
Despite Trapping Bans, The Battle Ensues
In a year’s time, California’s “nutria eradication task force” has set up 487 camera stations, conducted 1,600 camera checks and administered 995 trap sets. Farmers in San Joaquin Valley have donated five tons of sweet potatoes to be used as nutria bait, according to media reports.
In addition to hunting and trapping, the state plans to enact detection dogs and sterilization techniques to administer control.
CDFW has focused eradication efforts on a known nutria population in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, hoping to limit their spread and effect on California’s most important water resource which also serves as the heart of the state’s water delivery and infrastructure.
Professionals involved in the eradication project hope to also administer “Judas Nutria” - a tactic used successfully in Maryland. The process involves catching and fitting nutria with radio collars, and sterilizing individuals before releasing them back into the state’s waterways; in hopes that the radio collar tracking will lead trappers to “hold out” populations buried deep within the state’s Delta.
CDFW continues to work with both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Food and Agriculture in their efforts to eradicate nutria from the state.