Rep. Josh Harder donned waders and accompanied local wildlife officials through the wetlands of the Los Banos Wildlife Area in August 2019 in search of invasive, destructive nutria —huge semi-aquatic rodents that are threatening the state’s farm nearly $50 billion economy. Just over a year later, Harder’s legislation to help eradicate the species from California is set to be signed by the President.
In June 2019, Harder introduced his bill to reauthorize the Nutria Eradication and Control Act of 2003. Since its introduction, the bill has been amended to direct $12 million to programs in nutria-impacted states, including California. The original program helped Maryland successfully run the rat-like invaders out of the Chesapeake Bay and Harder is hoping it can help do the same here.
Since the species first reappeared in California in 2017, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has removed over 1,600 of the animals from the Central Valley, compared to just over 800 in February of this year. The bill passed the House in a unanimous, bipartisan vote and passed through the Senate last week via the “hotline” process, which requires unanimous support from every member.
Harder is joined on the bill by Republican Garrett Graves of Louisiana, as well as fellow California Representatives Jim Costa, TJ Cox, John Garamendi, Barbara Lee and Jimmy Panetta. Identical legislation was introduced in the Senate by Senators John Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein, and now will be sent to President Trump to be signed into law.
“Bipartisanship works! I’m glad I had the opportunity to work with Congressman Graves and Senators Kennedy and Feinstein – and President Trump – to get this done,” Harder said. “This is a win for everyone – farmers can sleep better knowing their crops and water infrastructure are safe and environmentalists can be happy that the native plants and animals being destroyed by these swamp rats will survive. We proved that you can still get things done in Washington by working across the aisle – even if it takes bringing a dead rat to the Floor of Congress.”
Harder made headlines in February when he brought a stuffed nutria named Nellie to the House Floor while advocating for his bill. Although seemingly cute, nutria pose a “triple threat” to California’s future. Similar to native species like muskrats, otters and beavers, the creatures are a top-rated agricultural pest that threatens the state’s agriculture. They destroy critical wetlands needed by the native wildlife, like the Los Banos Wildlife Area, and pose a public safety risk as their destructive burrowing can damage water infrastructure like levees and canals.
Nutria taken from Stanislaus County have even been found in almond orchards, where the rodents see trees as a potential food source. The nutria are known to gnaw at the base of fruit and nut trees, and the rodents also pose a threat to the canal systems that transport water to crops in the Valley.
The most recent data provided by CDFW as of July 29 shows that a total of 1,136 nutria have been taken from Merced County, 369 from Stanislaus County, 102 from San Joaquin County, 12 from Mariposa County and two from Fresno County since March 2017.
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.
In addition to anticipated funding from Harder’s bill, CDFW is utilizing state funding to eradicate the species. 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.
When all is said and done, Harder’s nutria legislation will help support programs that encourage habitat protection, education, research, monitoring, and capacity building to provide for the long-term protection of wetlands from destruction caused by nutria.