It wasn’t McIlhenny’s fault, and other things to know about nutria in Louisiana
To every legend, there is usually at least a grain of truth. Such is the case with the legend of the introduction of nutria to Louisiana. The oft-repeated story dates to 1938 and the decision by Tabasco founder E.A. McIlhenny to start a nutria farm on Avery Island. That much is true. Also true: He released a number of the orange-toothed rodents into the swamp in the hopes of jump-starting a lucrative new fur trade and, given their appetites, managing the spread of such invasive plants as water hyacinth. What apparently isn’t true is the claim that McIlhenny was the first to introduce them to the area, or that all Louisiana nutria today are descended from a group that escaped his farm during a hurricane. In fact, he bought his from a nutria farm around New Orleans, according to the McIlhenny family. He also wasn’t the only nutria farmer to release them into the swamp — although his little farm did, indeed, have a hand in their proliferation.
With amazingly fast reproduction rates — gestation takes only 130 days, and there can be as many as 13 pups in a litter — nutria have multiplied rapidly, peaking at about 20 million by the late 1950s. Rather than spurring a new industry, they have become undisputed pests. All those nutria must eat, after all — and, alas, they don’t eat just water hyacinth. Their diet of choice includes vegetation that helps sustain Louisiana’s coastline and protects sugarcane and rice fields.
- The nutria’s scientific name is Myocastor coypus, and it is native to South America.
- A 1936 classified ad published in The Times-Picayune and advertising “South American Swamp Beaver” for sale through Abita Springs Nutria Farm appears to back up McIlhenny’s refutation of the oft-repeated claim that he wasn’t the first to import nutria in the state.
- According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, nutria’s feeding habits affect about 100,000 acres of Louisiana’s coastline.
- Female nutria reach sexual maturity at 3 months; males take a month longer.
- A female nutria can become pregnant a day after giving birth.
- In an attempt to drive down the nutria population in Jefferson Parish, former Sheriff Harry Lee and his deputies hunted them down in drainage canals with .22-caliber rifles. In 12 years after starting their nightly patrols in 1995, they killed 14,437 of the critters.
- There have been multiple attempts over the years to market nutria meat as a delicacy called ragondin, the French name for nutria. They haven’t succeeded.
- Since 2000, the state has paid hunters $5 per tail to go into the marsh to liquidate nutria. About 300,000 are killed annually.
- Boudreaux D. Nutria is the name of the big furry nutria mascot of the New Orleans Baby Cakes, the local AAA minor-league baseball team that used to be known as the Zephyrs.
Because they breed briskly, nutria are all around us. It’s common to see them throughout South Louisiana, including in Bayou St. John and City Park’s waterways. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find any good use for these ecological menaces. Foodies aren’t clamoring to sit down to a plate of swamp rodent, and the demand for nutria fur has collapsed. But, like it or not, nutria have become part of the Louisiana landscape — and they appear to be here to stay.