OUTDOORS: Nutria are another invader imported by man

I have recounted many stories over the years concerning the coastal marshes, waterways and beaches of the Texas Coast, especially Southeastern Texas as well as some venturing into Southwestern Louisiana coastal areas.

It has been brought to my attention that I have spoken about many plants and animals of which a lot of folks have no idea of what I have referenced. I can’t seem to remembers that most readers of my column are not much better at reading minds than I am, so let me attempt to clarify one of the problems I have lived with all of my life in the coastal outdoors.

I would like to start out with a critter that has roamed the marshes and coastal areas of most of the Gulf Coast for over eighty years, that runs today from Texas on east to Florida and has found its way inland today into Lake Conroe and other East Texas Lakes and ponds. That critter is a nutria.

To be specific a nutria is a medium-sized, grayish-brown rodent with a long, round tail with few hairs on it. It looks kind of like a beaver without the large flat tail, and has hind webbed feet.

Nutria are found from Central Texas eastward and on the Texas Coast in marshes, swamps, ponds and lakes. Nutria can cause damage by burrowing which can lead to erosion and damage roads, levees and more. Nutria also ravenously eat aquatic vegetation to the point that it can kill off species of some aquatic vegetation, causing erosion and loss of habitat for other species. They can also cause havoc with rice and sugar cane fields by destroying the plants and damaging the surrounding habitat.

I recall a time duck hunting in the marsh between Port Arthur and Winnie. A friend of mine and I were wading through the marsh in an area toward a high spot that was covered with the reeds that grew up about seven to eight feet tall surrounding a marsh pond that had a large number of ducks feeding in it. The water we were in was about thigh deep and we were trying to be as quiet as possible so not to disturb the ducks before we were in position to shoot when they took off.

As we stealthily eased our way toward the reeds a noise caught our attention. It was a nutria on a high spot about ten yards away staring at us and making that strange deep squeaking, beeping sound. We froze waiting for the critter to head out away from us, but instead it slipped from the high spot toward us. At that point my friend shot the nutria. The ducks flew away, but we could not leave the nutria to disappear under water that close to us. A nutria had cut a long cut across the belly of a friend of ours’ lab the week before and we were not going to gamble with the critter acting the way the one on the mound did that morning.

You might note that I stated that they have been around the coast for about eighty years, so you may wonder where they came from and when.

Nutria were brought to Avery Island, Louisiana by Edward Avery McIllheny, the father of Tabasco sauce, and a few others imported the animals to fur farms — their fur was in high demand at the time — and were intentionally released around 1940 into the marsh in an attempt to grow the population for more fur. Well, they got it done because a nutria infestation almost took over the marshes, rice fields, sugar cane and coastal plains of Louisiana and Texas and over east along the Gulf of Mexico.

These critters, like many invasive species, came from South America and have no natural enemies in this country. They can be easily mistaken for beaver because they run about the same size as a beaver, but nutria has orange teeth and a round tail, not flat like a beaver’s. I have seen them in the 30- to 35-pound range.

The nutria population grew rapidly. A nutria can reach sexual maturity in three to four months, and females can have up to three litters a year, with each litter consisting of between one and 13 cubs. The cubs can begin their destructive eating shortly after birth, beginning their contribution to destroying the marsh only surpassed by another mindless creature, man.

So folks, what we have in this small part of Texas history is another thoughtless act of destruction that we have racked on our environment without thinking completely through the results of such an action. Thinking with our wallets, which rest so close to the location of the brains of some, and not with sound ecological science visited beforehand constantly gets us into more and more ecological problems.

Nutria are now another problem deliberately imported by man just like Hydrilla and Giant Salvinia. We can’t turn back the clock so we are stuck with trying to do damage control to try an somehow suppress the results of bad decisions of others. It is kind of like people looking in amazement when Spring Creek, Cypress Creek and the San Jacinto River floods.

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