Deep in the murky swamps of Louisiana lurks a ravenous beast that is wreaking havoc on the terrain. No, it's not the alligator, it's not the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and it's not even David Duke. It's a massive 15-pound ratlike critter called the nutria, whose reproductive powers are almost as mighty as its gargantuan appetite. This hungry herbivore has become so prolific in Louisiana that it is wiping out vital wetland vegetation in some areas. Now apopleptic wildlife managers are considering drastic measures to control the rampaging rodents. "You're not just talking about some little mouse here," says nutria nemesis Robert Belous, superintendent of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, south of New Orleans,
Call it the rat that ate Louisiana. Some people view nutria as cute critters, but the earth's second largest rodent does not have many fans left in the state. In parts of southeast Louisiana there are as many as 6,000 of these giant rats per square mile. The nutria are particularly threatening to the state's unique "floatant" marsh, a boglike carpet of interwoven plant life that literally floats in the swampy waters. In some areas nutria are eating clear through the marsh, leaving only open water behind. These holes, or "eat-outs," are up to 500 acres in size. They leave the marsh weak and more susceptible to storm damage.
Where did the nutria come from? That's where Tabasco sauce enters the picture. As local legend has it, in the 1930s the naturalist and hot-sauce magnate E. A. McIlhenny brought a handful of nutria up from their native South America, thinking they'd be good for the local fur trade. He kept them caged and they bred like mad. Then a hurricane hit and the nutria escaped. A growing population quickly emerged, and Louisiana's once vibrant trapping industry harvested millions of wild nutria for decades.
Then the Louisiana economy collapsed and so, coincidentally, did the market for furs. Pelt prices continue to fall. Greg Linscombe, a biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, says that between 1962 and 1982 Louisiana trappers took out more than 1 million nutria per year. This year only about 100,000 animals will be taken. Consequently, there are literally millions of extra nutria out there, and late last week state officials extended the trapping season for another month.
But traps take time. Some officials are now reaching for their long guns. Park Service policy says that nonnative species like the nutria should be "controlled or eradicated." As a form of damage control, Belous has trained a handful of sharpshooters who are standing by to kill off the nutria by the hundreds. That has put the Park Service in the awkward position of having to exterminate wildlife-which has ruffled the feathers of some local environmentalists. "We do not support hunting as a means of controlling the nutria population," says Marion Dickson of the local Audubon chapter, adding that the nutria should be controlled by "natural" predators like the alligator. But Belous disagrees. "We could be up to the rump in alligators and still not be able to control all the nutria."
Belous says it will be cost-effective to turn the marksmen loose only if the nutria herd up into large groups that can be easily shot. But nutria cluster only in cold weather, and winter is almost over. Meanwhile, state and federal officials are looking at other means of population control. Perhaps the world's first nutria drive, culminated by a New Orleans cook-off. Nutria etouffe, anyone? Pass the Tabasco.