Not all wildlife is welcome in our neighborhood. You may see this unwanted guest if you walk along the lake or make a circle around Seward Park. Is it a beaver? A muskrat? Or, the dreaded nutria? The latter has wreaked havoc in Chesapeake Bay and denuded natural levees along the Mississippi and is busy chomping its way through the ecosystem here.
Nutria are largish rodents native to South America. They were imported to the Pacific Northwestern part of the fur farming industry in the 1930s (think hats and muffs from glossy brown fur, and later coat linings). But not all nutria stayed on the farm. Escaped populations became feral and, because they can produce two to three litters a year of 11 or so offspring, they quickly multiplied. Nutria live along the shores of freshwater lakes and ponds. According to the Washington State Species Council, they consume up to 25% of their weight daily, each weighing 12 to 40 pounds. They eat roots and stems of plants, destroying about ten times more plant matter than they eat. “Nutria have been known to turn riparian areas into muddy bogs, destroying marshes that provide protection for flooding and habit for other animals, birds, and fish. Nutria often construct circular platforms of compacted vegetation, which they use for feeding, birthing, resting, and grooming. Nutria are known to construct burrows in levees, dikes, and embankments, causing bank collapse and erosion. They also are host to a variety of parasites and pathogens.” Yuk.
Warming winters are contributing to their geographical spread. One pair of nutria can, with the environmental right opportunity, jump start a population of 15,000 in three years (and that’s with a life span of approx. 3 years.)According to a 2015 Modern Farmer magazine profile, 20 nutria were introduced to Louisiana in 1938 and two decades later the population had reached 20 million.
Friends who saw what they believed was a nutria along the UW shoreline said it was large and absolutely fearless despite their German Shorthair Pointer locking eyes with it. The chief nutria predators in this area are coyotes and raccoons.
If you see one along Lake Washington—or anywhere else as they travel overland—you can report it to www.invasivespecies.wa.gov. If you are a property owner, you can call a wildlife trapper who can capture the animal(s) which will then be euthanized as it illegal to release it elsewhere in the state. Of course, you could eat it…The meat is allegedly packed with protein and tastes somewhat like rabbit. Most chefs have trouble getting past its rat-like appearance. A good hot barbecue—perhaps with a honey mustard sauce—is said to destroy any pathogens.
Nutria are often mistaken for beavers or muskrats. Size-wise, they fall in between the two. The tail is the key for identification: nutria tails are rat-like, thin, round, with little hair, and pointed at the tip. And these tails can be upwards of 12 to 18 inches in length. (A muskrat’s tail is hairless and flat.)