On our swamp tour, one of the airboat passengers pointed out a large animal scurrying through the tall swamp grass. Our seasoned Bayou pilot slowed the boat and killed the engine. Before us stood a big fat swamp rat, which our guide called a Nutria rat. From there, he told us a little bit about the role swamp landowners play in preserving the natural Louisiana ecosystem and how the Nutria Rat was involved.
The Nutria Rat is also known as the Coypu, is a large furry rodent that hails from South America, mainly Argentina and Chile. They enjoy long walks on the beach, aquatic plants, and reproduction. A single Coypu can have up to a dozen offspring with each litter and can produce close to 50 litters per year. Our guide grinned and said that we didn’t need to be all that good at math to see why that’s a problem.
The Nutria is an invasive species; it is not indigenous to Lousiana, nor is the Water Hyacinth which clogs up the swampways. Our guide told us that the native vegetation grew on the water, and depending on the grass, had weak roots that would send you splashing into the murky waters or are strong and could float you for a few seconds, enough time to get your footing from step to step. The land in the swamps is protected by these plants: They prevent erosion, and without the erosion from the land, the soil won’t pollute the water. The Nutria, however, love to eat these plants that help to balance the land and the water. They kill a large amount of these plants in the swamps. Our guide told us that a small brood of Nutria could clear an entire football field’s worth of swamp plants in a single night.
Why are they here? Well, trappers, long ago, brought them to Louisiana as part of the fur trade. Once the fur market crashed and there wasn’t enough demand for pelts, the trappers just let them be. That lead to a ballooning of populations. What is the solution? The state offers bounties on the tails of the rodents: $5 per tail. So, in the winter, the people on the bayou go out hunting for tails, shooting the rodents and harvesting tails to pay bills and feed their families. What about the bodies, you may ask? Well, they usually leave them. There’s no real demand for the meat or the fur, so it’s challenging to sell it in the market. The hunters leave them out in the swamp for coyotes and buzzards to eat, and eat them they will.
Our guide took in one final breath and let out a laugh, saying that the efforts are working: The amount of vegetation loss is down 30%, so everyone wins. Except the Nutria, of course!