Thursday, June 3, 2021

Are Nutria Headed Our Way Again?

Molly the pet Nutria
The Virginia Pilot: Nutria in Virginia? Yes, and special dogs are helping find the giant rat invaders

There’s an animal in my freezer that looks like a giant rat.

It was killed because it was acting oddly and because, well, giant rat equals heebie-jeebies.

But mostly, it was dispatched because we’d decided it was a nutria.

And nutria are outlaws: an invasive species that wipes out wetlands, devours crops and digs into dams — so dreaded it has its own wanted poster.

I’ve been keeping the carcass on ice — quadruple bagged — in case some expert wants to take a look.

Imported decades ago for their fur, nutria have been chewing their way north into Hampton Roads for years. Until recently, the James River confined them to the South Side.
Louisiana Nutria hunter
But now they’ve breached the Great Wall, getting a toehold in virgin territory, where conditions are even riper for a population explosion.

Sightings are being reported from Hampton to Mathews County, but the only presence that’s been confirmed is on the Chickahominy River, northwest of Williamsburg.

The infiltration was likely launched from Surry County, which nutria expanded into some time ago.

“The James isn’t that wide there and it only takes one pregnant female to make the swim,” said Todd Engelmeyer, regional biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. “It’s a miracle it hasn’t happened before.”

The ecological menace now has a clear path to the Potomac River, where it could cross into Maryland — a state that recently declared itself nutria-free after a $25 million, 20-year search-and-destroy campaign.

Nutria fur coat
I've posted about Maryland's war on Nutria before, when they started using dogs to hunt them in 2014 and when they declared victory in 2016. Those nutria were on the eastern shore, and were definitely contributing to degradation of the wetlands.

“Absolutely the last thing we want to see is them showing up here again,” said Jonathan McKnight, a biologist with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. “When I look south into Virginia, I’m really worried — for your sake as well as ours.”

The semi-aquatic rodents, which can top 20 pounds, typically prefer wetlands. With big orange teeth, they indulge their taste for plant roots, consuming a quarter of their body weight daily, creating swathes of dead zones known as “eat outs.”

Coastal marshes become mud flats, then open water. Erosion gets worse. And the vital nurseries and feeding grounds for all sorts of fish, fowl and blue crabs disappear.

Crockpot Nutria
So it doesn't sound like they're likely to wind up here anytime soon, given that they still have to cross to Potomac. The Western Shore has less wetland than the Eastern Shore, so much less potential habitiat. And, having eliminated them on the Eastern Shore, we'll know how to do it again if necessary. In the meantime, here's a Nutria recipe, Louisiana style.

Prepare the nutria meat. Thoroughly cover the meat with tenderizer and Cajun seasoning (Tony Chachere's is the best) overnight for best results. If pressed for time, cover meat with tenderizer and Cajun seasoning, and let sit for at least 1/2 hour. Cut meat into bite-sized pieces for best flavor. Use 3 to 4 pounds of meat for the following sauce recipe. If the hungry-man's portion is desired, use 5 pounds.

On low heat, in large pasta pot or good-sized heavy pan, slowly cook seasoned meat in 1 pound of real butter (with salt) until golden brown (about 20 minutes). Add 1 cup of chopped onions, 1 cup of chopped shallots, 1 cup of diced green bell peppers, 1 cup of diced celery, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of A-1 Sauce and 1 teaspoon of white pepper. Continue to heat on low, cooking for an additional 20 minutes.

Turn heat up to medium temperature, add 2 large cans of Ro-Tel diced green chilies and tomatoes - use medium or hot flavors to suit taste. Stir constantly for 10 more minutes to avoid burning the meat or the butter. Add 1 package of instant brown gravy. Only add the package contents. Do not add water as the package instructions indicate for making actual gravy. Tony's also sells a pre-made dark roux in a jar. If using this, add 1 Tablespoon of Tony's Dark Brown Roux. Turn heat to simmer. Add 2 large cans of your favorite tomato sauce (Prego, Ragu, Hunt's, etc.). My best results have been with Hunt's canned sauce -- use the garlic-and-herb-flavored sauce. Allow to simmer for 30 minutes. If sauce becomes thick, thin with small amounts (1/2 cup or less) of water. Taste for salt & pepper seasoning, and adjust according to taste.

For a traditional Cajun dish, serve sauce in large bowl with an ice cream scoop of rice in the middle. For a traditional American dish, serve sauce in large bowl poured over pasta or egg noodles.

I presume the equivalent Maryland version will involve Old Bay.  

The Wombat has Rule 5 Sunday: Samsung Sam finished on time and under budget.

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