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Blackwater Refuge Now Nutria-Free

"There's just not a lot of people out there who can stomach them," said Dan Murphy of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Chesapeake office.

Including him: "I don't eat rat," Murphy said.

Nutria ate through about half of the marshland at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and the animals remain elsewhere in Maryland. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

The idea behind the recent eradication effort was to use full-time trappers, paid by the hour and not by the nutria. The trappers would act like a conquering army, slowly taking territory in a west-to-east march that was guided by GBS equipment.

In the summer, the trappers had to fend off mosquitoes and biting greenhead flies. There were also spiders and the danger of the occasional bite from a nutria's inch-long orange buckteeth.

Winter in the marsh, while often frigid, turned out to be the easy season. Once the water froze, the nutria couldn't swim away, and trappers could shoot them by the dozens on the ice.

"There's really about two months of the year when this is a pleasant occupation," Kendrot said.

This September, the anti-nutria team got the news they were waiting for: Surveys showed they had effectively cleared the animals from more than 35,000 acres in and around Blackwater.

As it turned out, the nutria death toll had been much lower than they expected, since early speculation was that 50,000 "nutes" were in the refuge. Scientists say the rest were killed by recent cold winters or by a decline in food, as so much of the marsh already was eaten.

With the nutria gone, the marsh is starting to look the way it did 70 years ago, officials said.

Yesterday, Murphy looked out over a bulrush marsh that was moving from mangy patches to thick, full growth.

"We saved it," he said.

Or at least part of it. The plan is for the Army Corps of Engineers to layer new dirt on some of the heavily eroded areas and replant it with marsh grasses.

Officials in Maryland said they hope the success achieved at Blackwater can be a model for the roughly 16 other states that have nutria problems.

One of them is Virginia, which has a small population south of Virginia Beach.

But in Louisiana, the only state with a bigger nutria population than Maryland's, authorities said they doubted whether a similar eradication was possible there. Millions of nutria are in that swampy state, and trappers routinely match the catch at Blackwater, about 8,300, in a couple of days.

In Maryland, authorities say they want to slowly expand their nutria-free zone to include the rest of the Eastern Shore, where tens of thousands more nutria lurk between the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Ocean City.

Authorities also want to make sure that nutria can't sneak back in to Blackwater from neighboring areas. The whole effort will require millions more in funding and many more trappers, officials said.

"It was a major battle that has, for the most part, been won," said Jacoby Carter, a national expert on nutria for the U.S. Geological Survey. "But you've got to worry about the guerrilla warfare."

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