Area lead­ers seek­ing more fund­ing to ad­dress state’s nu­tria cri­sis

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Stay Connected - BY THADDEUS MILLER [email protected]­nobee.com Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453, @thad­deusmiller

Mas­sive invasive ro­dents are chew­ing up wet­lands in Merced and other coun­ties. Area lead­ers say the prob­lem needs more money to erad­i­cate the an­i­mals, be­fore they are out of con­trol.

South Amer­i­can ro­dents called “nu­tria” were found in Merced County in March 2017. That alarmed Cal­i­for­nia wildlife of­fi­cials be­cause of the ro­dents’ po­ten­tial to harm wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture that’s vi­tal for San Joaquin Val­ley farms.

Nearly 700 nu­tria have been caught and killed since then, in­clud­ing 580 in Merced County alone, ac­cord­ing to Valerie Cook, the man­ager of the Nu­tria Erad­i­ca­tion Pro­gram for the state De­part­ment of Fish and Wildlife.

“We’ve been in re­ally an emer­gency re­sponse, but ev­ery­thing we have done to date is to sup­press that pop­u­la­tion just to keep it from hit­ting (an) ex­plo­sion,” she said on Fri­day.

The ro­dents are an invasive species in sev­eral states, in­clud­ing Louisiana, Mary­land and Ore­gon.

Nu­tria can give birth to lit­ters of a dozen about three times a year, and be­come preg­nant again within 48 hours of giv­ing birth. They live in marsh­land and feed heav­ily on veg­e­ta­tion. Where they ap­pear, they can be a scourge on the en­vi­ron­ment, ac­cord­ing to the state.

In con­trast, na­tive beavers, which are larger than nu­tria, but can also be de­struc­tive, only breed once a year to pro­duce three to six off­spring, ac­cord­ing to Greg Ger­sten­berg, op­er­a­tion chief of the erad­i­ca­tion pro­gram.

On top of that, beavers make their homes in one area of a wa­ter­way and gen­er­ally stick to it. “Nu­tria are colo­nial. They ac­tu­ally live in big groups,” Ger­sten­berg said. “So their damage be­comes wide­spread.”

Nu­tria males leave the place they were born, mak­ing new homes up to 50 miles away. They eat just about any veg­e­ta­tion.

The pri­mary con­cern in keep­ing nu­tria out of the San Joaquin River Delta is be­cause they bur­row in ir­ri­ga­tion canals and levees. That poses a risk to drink­ing wa­ter, and could ex­pose down­stream com­mu­ni­ties and farm fields to flooding.

As of May 2019, in ad­di­tion to Merced, nu­tria have been con­firmed in San Joaquin, Stanis­laus, Fresno, Mari­posa, and Tuolumne coun­ties, ac­cord­ing to the state.

The state Leg­is­la­ture ap­pro­pri­ated about $1.9 mil­lion for the 2019-20 fis­cal year to erad­i­cate nu­tria, and set up con­tin­u­ing fund­ing for the next three years. Some say that’s not enough.

The state es­ti­mates within five years there could be nearly 250,000 nu­tria wreak­ing havoc on Cal­i­for­nia’s en­dan­gered wet­lands.

Cal­i­for­nia Rep. Josh Harder, D-Tur­lock, is push­ing for leg­is­la­tion that would add an­other $7 mil­lion in fed­eral fund­ing to­wards the erad­i­ca­tion.

“The way we nip it in the bud is we take it se­ri­ously and we ed­u­cate our pop­u­la­tion,” he said on Fri­day. “Let’s make sure we put the re­sources to­ward the pro­gram that are go­ing to help it.”

He said of­fi­cials in Mary­land are only now get­ting a han­dle on their in­va­sion af­ter fight­ing it for two decades.

Of­fi­cials said the pro­posed fund­ing could be enough to put a team of 40 peo­ple on the erad­i­ca­tion ef­fort, dou­bling the cur­rent crew.

The money would help im­ple­ment “Ju­das nu­tria” — an­i­mals that are caught, ster­il­ized and out­fit­ted with track­ers to help wildlife of­fi­cials find the more sneaky an­i­mals. Nu­tri­a­track­ing dogs are also part of the new ef­forts.

It’s not clear how the nu­tria, which have been a ma­jor en­vi­ron­men­tal pest in Ore­gon, got into Cal­i­for­nia. The mas­sive ro­dents are were brought to the U.S. in the 19th cen­tury for their fur, ac­cord­ing to wildlife ex­perts.

What is clear is the ro­dents must go, ac­cord­ing to Harder

“Peo­ple have seen what hap­pened in Louisiana, 400,000 nu­tria caught ev­ery sin­gle year,” he said. “We don’t want that to be us. If that be­comes us that will be a risk to (our) way of life, all the ag wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture.”

THE PRI­MARY CON­CERN IN KEEP­ING NU­TRIA OUT OF THE SAN JOAQUIN RIVER DELTA IS BE­CAUSE THEY BUR­ROW IN IR­RI­GA­TION CANALS AND LEVEES. THAT POSES A RISK TO DRINK­ING WA­TER, AND COULD EX­POSE DOWN­STREAM COM­MU­NI­TIES AND FARM FIELDS TO FLOODING.

THADDEUS MILLER [email protected]­ced­sun­star.com

This pic­ture of Cal­i­for­nia Rep. Josh Harder, D-Tur­lock, shows how large the invasive, South Amer­i­can ro­dent, the nu­tria, can be­come. Fe­male nu­tria can get preg­nant again 48 hours af­ter giv­ing birth. And, they can have lit­ters of 12 off­spring three times a year.

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