Can dog food help Louisiana’s wetlands?

Sam Harnett Sep 20, 2013

Can dog food help Louisiana’s wetlands?

Sam Harnett Sep 20, 2013

Robert Raymond is a nutria’s biggest nightmare. The retired trapper captures almost 2,000 of the 15-pound, invasive, coastal-wetlands-destroying mammals every year.

The Nutria Trapper from Noam Eshel on Vimeo.

The state of Louisiana relies on people like Raymond to keep the wild nutria population under control. The bad news is, trappers like Raymond are a dying breed.

A Business Opportunity Gone Wild

Nutria damage thousands of acres of coastal wetlands in Louisiana each year. Originally from South America where they are called Coypu, the rodents were introduced to Louisiana in the 1930s to supplement the state’s booming fur market. Marketers peddled the creatures as a get-rich scheme — cultivate them, sell the fur, make a fortune! They even came up with a new name: “nutria.” That translates in Spanish as “otter,” an animal with a prized coat in the fur industry at the time.

A nutria in Ljubljanica, Slovenia. (Source: Petar Milošević / Wikimedia Commons)

The newly christened beasts soon escaped into Louisiana’s coastal marshland where they thrived, earning them another name: “river rat.” An apt one; the creatures are essentially marsh lawnmowers, scarfing down vegetation and leaving the coastal wetlands increasingly susceptible to erosion. A robust fur market and Louisiana’s trapping tradition once kept the feral nutria population in check. Today, that’s no longer the case.

Edmond Mouton directs the nutria control program for the Louisiana Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says trapping was once standard work in the winter for crabbers, shrimpers, and fishermen. “It was kind of the lifestyle of the coastal people,” Mouton says, “and a lot of that has since gone by the wayside.” Why? Money.

At the height of the fur market in the ’70s, Mouton says nutria pelts used to go for $9 a piece. There were about 15,000 trappers in the state back then he says, and they brought in two million nutria a year. Now the price of nutria fur is down to around $2 a pelt, and the number of trappers to about 2,000. As the trappers dropped off, the nutria population bloomed. Mouton says estimates for the number of nutria in the mid-’90s range to over 25 million. The rodents were chewing up the wetlands.

A dozen years ago the state started offering a bounty for a dead nutria. It started at $4 for a tail and has since risen to $5.

Mouton says, “the idea behind the program is to create an artificial inflated price to emulated a good fur market.”

So far the initiative has been pretty successful. Trappers are bringing in around 320,000 nutria a year. But it comes at a cost — about $3 million in state and federal funds. The dream is to bring back a market for the creature.

Searching for an Alternative Market

Louisiana has promoted nutria as eco-friendly fur and ran a campaign to convince people they are culinary delicacies. Perhaps it’s because of the association with rats, or those teeth — protruding out from their mouths like two, tobacco-stained daggers — but for whatever reason, neither the food nor the fur concept has taken off. That brings us to the dogs.

“Maybe it’s the wild taste of it,” Veni Harlan says, “but they absolutely go crazy over it.”

Veni Harlan and her brother Hansel have a new business plan for nutria: protein-rich, allergen-free, locally-sourced, and very eco-conscious dog treats. Their company is called Marsh Dog. On their packages they tout the biscuits and jerky as “good for your dog and great for coastal wetlands.”

Hansel Harlan says they aim to create a market that will encourage people to trap more nutria.

“It’s sort of harnessing the forces of capitalism to address a larger good,” he says.

Achieving that larger good means eradicating nutria, which, Veni admits, puts them in a funny position as a business.

“Well, our goal,” Veni says, “would be to be put out of business.”

With several million nutria running around the state, they won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Especially if trappers like Raymond really start retiring.

Sam tweeted about the backstory of his reporting. Follow him at @SamWHarnett.

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