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House passes bill to tackle nutria problem
Nutria and Harder
Rep. Josh Harder brought “Nellie the Nutria” to the House floor on Wednesday ahead of a unanimous vote for his bill to help eradicate the invasive, semi-aquatic rodents from the state (Photo contributed).

It’s not every day that a Congressman brings a stuffed rodent with them to the House floor, but that’s exactly what Rep. Josh Harder did Wednesday ahead of a unanimous vote supporting his bill meant to eradicate invasive swamp rats from the state.

Her name is Nellie the Nutria, and Harder brought the piece of taxidermy along while advocating for the eradication of the species from California — a statewide issue that is threatening the state’s nearly $50 billion farm economy. He believes the stuffed animal’s presence helped illustrate the enormity of the problem nutria could cause if left ignored.

“I think a lot of times what happens is D.C. seems disconnected from the reality of a place like the Central Valley, so I think about how we can actually make issues relevant and how to remind people of the challenges in the areas like ours. This was one of the best ways to do it,” Harder said. “It’s hard to visualize a 40-pound swamp rat — people don’t believe me when I tell them that there’s this species taking over. But, if you bring one out, you can really clarify the discussion and help people understand what’s really at stake here.”

The State of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife kicked off a statewide nutria eradication effort in 2017 when a pregnant female nutria turned up in a Merced County beaver trap. As of December 2019, 823 of the invasive, semi-aquatic rodents have been captured in five counties throughout the state: 675 in Merced County, 87 in San Joaquin County, 48 in Stanislaus County, 12 in Mariposa County and one in Fresno County. In August 2019, just under 700 nutria had been captured statewide.

“I can’t believe that these things get so big and that they breed so quickly. It’s one of those things where the first time you see one you think they seem cute, but when you understand the impact it’s having on our infrastructure you realize we need to do more to stop this,” Harder said. “We want to catch all of them before you see them everywhere, because by the time you see them everywhere it’s too late.”

Native to South America, nutria pose a “triple threat” to California’s future. Similar to native species like muskrats, otters and beavers, the large, rat-like creatures are a top-rated agricultural pest that destroy critical wetlands needed by the native wildlife, like the Los Banos Wildlife Area. They also pose a public safety risk as their destructive burrowing can damage water infrastructure like levees and canals, and their large litters combined with year-round breeding cycles make them a fast-growing problem.

“If you really care about the agricultural future of the Valley, the first thing you can do is eradicate the swamp rats that are destroying it,” Harder said. “The best step forward to making sure that we’re ensuring the water security in the Valley is by making sure we save the infrastructure that’s already been built.”

Harder’s bill, which he introduced in June 2019, would reauthorize the Nutria Eradication and Control Act of 2003, directing $12 million to programs in nutria-impacted states, including California. The programs supported by the bill encourage habitat protection, education, research, monitoring and capacity building to provide for the long-term protection of wetlands from destruction caused by nutria.

“Eradicating nutria is critical to addressing the water problems in California and throughout the Valley because nutria eat infrastructure, they eat canals, they eat levees and destroy trees and agriculture,” Harder said.

This isn’t the first time California has battled nutria. They were originally brought to the state in 1899 for the fur trade, and nutria farms were eventually licensed in California in the mid-1900s. Upon the industry’s collapse, the rodents were either turned loose or escaped. After a statewide effort, the species was formally declared eradicated in California in the 1970s but has since turned up again.

States like Louisiana and Maryland have battled the species as well, one more successfully than the other. In Louisiana there are over 400,000 of the rodents taken annually, with the state even offering a bounty on nutria. Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge saw over 50 percent of its marshes converted to open water between 1939 and 1989, due to the destructive feeding habits of its large nutria population.

It took the state 20 years, but Maryland is now incredibly close to declaring nutria eradicated, and CDFW is utilizing nearly $10 million in state funding to mimic the state’s efforts. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget provides almost $2 million to aid the nutria program, and the Delta Conservancy has awarded it $8.5 million over three years. Harder expects funding made available by his bill to be in the budget by 2020-2021 if passed by the Senate.

CDFW plans to enact a “Judas” nutria program, taking wild nutria, sterilizing them and releasing them back into the wild with tracking devices in order to lead eradication efforts to the rest of the population. Nutria dogs are also in the works, which will help sniff out the destructive rodents that have even been known to hunker down in almond orchards, where they see trees as a potential food source.

Democrat Valley Reps. Jim Costa, TJ Cox and John Garamendi serve as cosponsors for the bill, though is also clearly has bipartisan support following a unanimous “yes” vote in the House on Wednesday.

“I told the other representatives they may not encounter one in their state, but we’re going to pay a heck of a lot more money in 10 years if we don’t get it done now because this is an explosive problem,” Harder said.