Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"Swamp Rat: The Story of Dixie's Nutria Invasion


           Everyone living in Louisiana knows the damage nutria; a non-native rat-like rodent (but not a rat) is doing to the marshes protecting state's coast from storms and hurricanes rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico..  Nutria eat the grasses that hold the marshes together.  Without the grass the marshes wash away leaving only open water; with nothing to dissipate the fury of dangerous storms.
           Nutria have prodigious appetites.  And they are prodigious breeders.  These two traits make nutria well deserving of the tag; the rat that ate Louisiana.
          This is a bad thing, a very bad thing, Theodore G. Manno points out repeatedly in is new book "Swamp Rat: The Story of Dixie's Nutria Invasion," University of Mississippi Press/Jackson, 2017.   The furry rodent from South America with the voracious appetite for native swamp grasses, is largely responsible for a massive loss of land along the Gulf of Mexico-land that protects the populated parts of the Bayou State, many claim.  And all attempts to stop them have failed.
             At least that is the gloomy overview.  But there is so much more to the story of the nutria and how a 15-pound furry rodent with yellow front teeth, surviving only on plant matter became a major concern for the future of Louisiana, and to a lesser extent, the Gulf South.
              Manno fills in the fascinating backstory of how nutria made their way to Louisiana (and at one time 39 other states in the U.S.)  They were invited.
             The trapping, skinning and export of pelts has always been big business in Louisiana.  While nutria were still in South America, their native habitat a huge fad for beaver hats swept Europe beginning in the 1600s.  After almost all beaver in Europe were harvested to make the hats, the supply of beaver began to come from the colonies in North America.  But in the 1830s demand for beaver hats suddenly dropped in favor of hats made from silk.  At the same time over-trapping in North America caused the beaver market to crash.  Nutria began to be imported from South America to shore up the valuable fur market but nutria hats never caught on.  (See Seinfeld episode # 142 for an interesting take on the "rat hat.")
           But the market for fur pelts for clothing, gloves and wraps to sell to the luxury market was still strong.  Nutria fur is nice fur and remained in demand for coats and other fur goods.  But it ws not the favorite of furriers.  Muskrat, of which there were many in Louisiana, became the popular pelt of choice in the early 20th century.  Louisiana was a muskrat Mecca.  All of Canada could produce only 60% of the muskrat pelts that Louisiana did.  Muskrat fur pelts peaked in 1945.  Five years later the fur market in Louisiana was a bust.
          The nutria harvest increased to replace the dwindling muskrat population but the fur harvest just limped along for a decade or two as the fad for wearing fur (unless you were born wearing it) died.
         But not the nutria.  The harvest of nutria by trappers had kept the nutria populations from expanding, despite their prodigious breeding ability.  And while the non-native species had very few natural predators, alligators would eat them.  But by the 1960s alligators had been hunted for their skins to the point there was a fear they might be trapped to extinction.  So with the nutria's two major predators, man and alligators, out of the picture, nutria populations exploded.
          Manno shows how the fortunes of the nutria intertwined with that of other major Louisiana economic foundations such as sugar cane.  He writes with great detail about how and when the nutria came to North America.  (Nutria can be found or have been found in 40 states in the U.S., though are now mostly in 16 states, Europe, the Middle East, South Korea, southern China, India and Japan.)
           A chapter of the book goes into detail about one of the most famous nutria legends:  That all the nutria chewing up the state now are from several nutria pens on Avery Island, LA that were destroyed by a hurricane in the 1930s releasing the hearty herbivores into the wild.  To discover what this nutria expert thinks of this venerable Louisiana tale, buy the book to find out. 

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