A bigger bounty for nutria didn’t result in a bigger body count last year.
Louisiana hunters and trappers notched one of the smallest numbers of kills since the the state nutria control program was established 20 years ago. That’s despite the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries recently raising the reward for each dead ‘swamp rat’ from $5 to $6.
But it was extreme weather rather than low pay that likely spared the invasive, wetland-devouring rodents, said Jennifer Hogue-Manuel, manager of Wildlife and Fisheries’ nutria control program.
“Because of Hurricane Ida, a lot of people had bigger concerns than harvesting nutria,” she said.
The program often sees dips in participation after storms, especially when they batter Terrebonne, St. Mary, Plaquemines and other coastal parishes that are hotbeds for nutria activity. The Category 4 storm slammed southeast Louisiana in late August 2021, causing more than $75 billion in wind and water damage, making it one of the costliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
“A lot of people got displaced or they’re working on their houses and not out hunting on the weekend,” Hogue-Manuel said.
The easing of the COVID-19 pandemic was another reason for the low numbers. Nutria hunters were especially productive during the long lockdowns, but many of them have returned to pre-pandemic work.
About 203,800 nutria tails were turned in to state collection centers by about 200 people during the 2021-2022 hunting season. Last year's tally ranks as the third-lowest since the nutria control program was established in 2002, and it amounts to just half the state's annual goal of 400,000 nutria kills.
St. Mary reported the highest number of tails last year, with 44,085, followed by Terrebonne (41,530), Plaquemines (19,071) and Lafourche Parish (18,680).
The previous season racked up about 312,000 tails from 284 participants.
Nutria were brought to Louisiana from South America for the fur trade in the 1930s. When the fur market tanked, many of the semi-aquatic animals were released into the wild, where they thrived at the expense of the state’s fragile coastal wetlands. Unlike Louisiana's native muskrats, which eat plant tops, nutria gnaw away the roots, leaving little to hold the soil in place.
Nutria have converted more than 40 square miles of the coast into open water in recent decades, according to Wildlife and Fisheries estimates.
Nutria are one of many factors contributing to rapid land loss along Louisiana's coast. The major causes include oil and gas exploration, sea level rise, soil subsidence and the loss of replenishing sediment since the Mississippi River was brought under control with levees.
Recent efforts to market nutria furs and meat have had little success.
The state’s decision to raise the bounty to $6 in 2019 spurred a two-year uptick in kills, but even the 2021 tally of more than 300,000 amounted to just 1% of the state’s nutria population.
“There’s no way to fully eradicate nutria in Louisiana,” Hogue-Manuel said. “Even if we did, there’s still nutria in Texas and neighboring states. Our goal is to manage the population and keep it at an acceptable level.”
The control program’s annual aerial survey found less nutria damage in coastal marshes than last year, but that’s likely because there’s simply less marsh than there was before Ida. The hurricane robbed the state of about 106 square miles of wetlands, with most of the loss occurring in the Barataria Basin south of New Orleans, according to the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
A lot of floating marsh, known as flotant, was “folded up or moved around,” and wetlands already weakened by nutria were washed away by the storm, Hogue-Manuel said.
It’s hoped that the storm took out some nutria as well.
“They tend to drown during storm surge but it’s hard to say how much the hurricane impacted them,” Hogue-Manuel said.
If it doesn’t kill them, a hurricane can encourage nutria to move further inland. That’s bad news for swamps, which tend to suffer lighter damage when marshes are plentiful. An inland push may also cause trouble for farm and flood control levees, which are undermined when nutria burrow into them.
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