State may receive reinforcements in nutria battle


Issue Date: June 26, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Nutria threaten crops, levees and other water systems. Once eradicated from California, they now infest at least five counties.
Photo/California Department of Fish and Wildlife

In the war against nutria, reinforcements will soon be on the way, thanks to new funding.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is slated to receive nearly $2 million from the state budget, pending Gov. Gavin Newsom's signature. The department also received an $8.5 million, three-year grant last month from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy. And members of Congress from the Central Valley want to send money to the state from Washington.

That should help the solitary person who's been trying to keep the swamp rat from taking over California's interior waterways, as has already happened to Maryland, Louisiana and 16 other states.

"Right now, we have one full-time employee in the state of California dedicated to nutria," CDFW information officer Peter Tira said, adding that the nutria program has otherwise operated "largely on reassigned staff and reallocated funding."

The funding boost, Tira said, would mean his department could hire more permanent staffers and bulk up its knowledge.

"What's really important is, you have to develop some expertise," he said. "Where do they live? How do you trap them? We don't have people in California who grew up trapping, like we did 100 years ago. … It's a learning curve to understand them. That institutional expertise, we don't have."

Nutria carry the potential to undermine levees and other water infrastructure, devastate wetlands and dine on farmers' crops. Nutria can eat as much as 25 percent of their body weight in a day and spawn several litters per year.

With that in mind, Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, introduced a bill in Congress to reauthorize the Nutria Eradication and Control Act of 2003, which helped fight off nutria in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, and direct $7 million to California's nutria-be-gone efforts. Three other Central Valley representatives—Jim Costa, D-Fresno, John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and TJ Cox, D-Fresno—have signed on as cosponsors.

Erin Huston, who works on natural-resources issues for the California Farm Bureau Federation, called the need for eradication urgent.

"Nutria have the potential to cause damage to crops as well as levees and other water infrastructure," Huston said. "In order to prevent crop loss and local flooding, it is essential that we move quickly, get ahead of the detections and eradicate this invasive species."

The nutria hails from South America; it first showed up in California decades ago but was eradicated in the 1970s. It reappeared in 2017.

Tira said that as of June 20, 531 nutria had been trapped in the state, with the bulk of them—443—in Merced County. The rest were taken from San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Mariposa and Fresno counties. The northernmost sighting reported so far was last month, along the San Joaquin River in Stockton.

Adult nutria can grow to as long as 2 feet and weigh as much as 20 pounds, and are distinguished by their orange teeth, white whiskers and footlong, round tails. They're often mistaken for muskrats or beavers.

CDFW has a spotting guide and other information at www.wildlife.ca.gov/nutria. Suspected nutria sightings may be reported to the CDFW Invasive Species Program at 866-440-9530 or invasives@wildlife.ca.gov.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.