An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Home : News : Features : Display
NEWS | June 5, 2013

Nutria nabbing: Eustis conservationists prowl for pests

By Airman 1st Class Austin Harvill 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

A fiddler crab leaps from a barren mud-scape as a small, flat-bottom boat approaches. A man steps out of the boat, softly sinking into the eroding earth. He inspects a floating platform's hair snares, looking for any signs of wildlife.

A discovery of that wildlife could mean disaster for the Fort Eustis, Va., ecosystem.

The undesirable wildlife in question are called nutria. Nutrias are large, herbivorous, semiaquatic rodents that look nearly identical to beaver, although they have a rat-like tail and bright orange teeth.

This strange creature enjoys munching on the roots of aquatic and semi-aquatic vegetation, which can cause serious problems for wetlands if a nutria population runs rampant.

"When nutrias eat up all the vegetation around the shore line, the river erodes the bare earth underneath," said James Dolan, 733rd Civil Engineer Division environmental flight conservationist. "Eventually, whole habitats will be destroyed and the natural ecosystem will die."

Dolan, along with Dage Blixt, U.S. Department of Agriculture conservationist, sets up hair snare platforms, or "curiosity traps," around Fort Eustis to find nutrias, if they are at Fort Eustis at all.

"Animals like to jump up on the platform out of curiosity," said Blixt. "The little frayed-wire poles catch hair for later study to determine the animal responsible for visiting."

In addition to collecting hair, Blixt recovered the entire platform for cleaning to use again.

Blixt and Nolan aren't the only people hoping to discover a lack of nutrias nearby - ever since the 1940's and 50's, wildlife conservationists have been hard at work keeping the prolific species under control.

During the late 19th century and surviving well into the early 20th century, nutria fur was a prized commodity. As a native species of South America, Americans brought the creatures from southern Chile to locations like California and Louisiana. Nutria farms were established and, for a short period, nutria pelts were easily attainable.

Eventually, by 1950, the fur trade plummeted. With no need for the animals, many owners released them into the wild. Since then, nutrias have had abundant feeding grounds and few predators to slow their growth.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, they can produce approximately four offspring two times a year, which means a nutria population, even with an 80 percent mortality rate before the age of one, will grow drastically in a few short years.

If Dolan and Blixt can catch the rodents before they reach their historically high numbers, Fort Eustis won't become another disaster area.

"If we do find nutrias, we will implement a plan to reduce their numbers or remove them from the area," said Dolan.

Protecting the habitat around Fort Eustis can be a tough job, but with people like Dolan and Blixt on patrol, little fiddler crabs can rest easy inside their tiny, grassy burrows, knowing their habitat is safe from nutria.