Big, furry nutria are ruining California wetlands; Congress might help kill them

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Nutria, large South American rodents, were found in California's Merced County two years ago, alarming wildlife officials because of the rodents’ potential to harm infrastructure that moves waters to farms and cities.

WASHINGTON — A rookie California lawmaker hauled a 20-pound rodent carcass into Congress to press his colleagues for money to fight an invasive species wreaking havoc on his district.

Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., hopes a hearing on his bill will convince his colleagues that funding to stop an invasive species in California's Central Valley is sorely needed — before the problem gets worse and costs drastically increase.

Nutria, large South American rodents, were found in California's Merced County two years ago, alarming wildlife officials because of the rodents' potential to harm infrastructure that moves waters to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities.

Full-grown nutria can grow as large as a beagle, devour up to 25% of their body weight daily and have up to 200 offspring per year. Without help, officials have estimated there could be a quarter million nutria in California destroying the wetlands and waterways within five years.

The bill would award $7 million to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife over five years to combat the spread of nutria.

Harder brought a stuffed, dead nutria he got from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to emphasize the scale of the problem to other lawmakers.

"This is a uniting issue. Both farmers and environmental activists have reached out to my office expressing concern about this," Harder said. "So it's not a Republican or Democrat issue. Once people understand the problem, they're behind it."

While bills have mostly hit a standstill in the divided Congress, a hearing for such an issue is an indication the funding could be included in a budget bill that Congress is required to pass later this year. The bill is cosponsored by Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, TJ Cox, D-Fresno, and Barbara Lee, D-Oakland.

Harder said this is one of his top priorities this Congress.

"Water is always the top priority, and this is part and parcel of preserving our infrastructure," Harder said.

Harder's bill would revive the Nutria Eradication and Control Act of 2003, which was successful when the species threatened the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The programs supported by the bill encourage habitat protection, education, research, monitoring, and capacity building to provide for the long-term protection of wetlands from destruction caused by nutria.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has received $10 million this year from the state Legislature and grants to eradicate nutria, which Peter Tira, spokesman for Fish and Wildlife, said was a substantial help.

"When we started we didn't have any money, and we had to redirect staff from other places, so now we can hire a full-time staff dedicated to nutria," Tira said. "Our response right now is an emergency response, and now we can really battle against nutria, which is long and takes a real commitment. ... We need that to be successful."

An additional $7 million would be huge for the program, according to Tira. The department has caught or killed more than 700 nutria since they were discovered in California. The species has no natural predator in the area.

"If you don't get on nutria early you won't have any hope of ever getting rid of them," Tira said. "It's a lot less expensive to aggressively address nutria here on the front end than live with them in perpetuity and address their damages."

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