You know it's springtime in Dallas when the crepe myrtles begin to bloom, native wildflowers start their sprouting and the nutria waddle from their drainage pipes and sewers to frolic like kittens in the warm air.
With their native land of Argentina too far away for swimming or travel by webbed foot, and a bounty on their ratlike tails in Louisiana, their notorious U.S. stomping grounds, Dallas appears as good a place as any for the buck-toothed, semi-aquatic migrants, who have settled all over the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Wildlife experts speculate the nutria made their way to urban locales such as Bachman Lake, White Rock Lake and other area bodies of water through the city's drainage system. The spring and summer months are peak times for nutria-related calls at Dallas' animal control office, which receives an average of 50 such communiqués a year, senior animal control manager Kent Robertson says. One of 20 animal control officers is usually dispatched to set traps for the furry offenders, who generally live near water but stray on occasion. "People call and say, 'I've got this big rat in my yard and I need it out of here now,'" Robertson says.
The nutria, a member of the rodent family, looks like a beaver in front and a giant rat in back, has wiry whiskers, webbed back feet and can grow as big as a hefty housecat, up to 40 inches long and 20 pounds. When startled or cornered, they can be mean, too, sinking their sharp orange teeth clear through a fisherman's waders. Dallas' warm water and mild winters apparently keep the local nutria population comfortable year-round, even at Bachman Lake, hardly a thriving ecosystem.
One Bachman nutria looks positively giddy as it briefly romps with a small puppy in the grass a few yards from the water's edge. A small, hungry clan promptly appears after a lake visitor strolls off the jogging path closer to the water and begins tossing bread at a group of ducks and pigeons.
"They're a little spoiled," says Ruben Naranjo, parks department maintenance supervisor for the Bachman Lake area.
Spoiled, but apparently not stupid, according to Naranjo. Nutria have lived around the lake for the 17 years Naranjo has worked for the parks department, yet they rarely appear when he's around, he says. He doesn't seek them out, either. "We've never really received any complaints about them, so we just leave them alone," he says. Remarkable, considering the nutria has surpassed the alligator's reputation as the nastiest animal on four legs in Louisiana, where the critters have become the scourge of the state by devouring and tearing it up on a scale that would impress the Tasmanian devil. Thanks to a voracious, largely vegetarian diet, the nutria have stripped once-lush areas of greenery. They have also caused millions of dollars of damage by destroying levees, many of which help channel the Mississippi River, and causing erosion to drainage systems, crucial to keeping the state's low-lying areas above water.
But the nutria's appetite is only part of the problem in Louisiana. It reaches sexual maturity at a mere 4 to 5 months of age and is capable of having as many as 10 or 11 babies per litter several times a year.
As a result, Louisiana has considered just about every scheme to reduce its nutria population. The state has paid hunters and trappers a $4-a-nutria-tail bounty since December. Previous stabs at curbing the nutria population--including getting local chefs to promote nutria meat cuisine--have been unsuccessful.
The United States has Tabasco sauce heir E.A. McIlhenny largely to thank for the critters. McIlhenny bought a dozen or so in Argentina in the 1930s and brought them home to Louisiana's Gulf Coast, hoping to capitalize on the booming fur market by selling their deep brown, beaverlike pelts. But a 1937 storm busted the rodents' cages, freeing their hides while they still had them. Several decades later, there are millions and millions of nutria in Louisiana alone.
States as far north as Maryland and Oregon now blame the nutria for wetlands loss. Of course, not all of the munchers came from McIlhenny's batch. He wasn't the only entrepreneur trying to satisfy the demand for furs with nutria. Their pelts never caught on big, however, and the fur market crashed in the 1980s. With little incentive to hunt and trap them, many nutria that would have died not only lived, but prospered. And reproduced. And reproduced. And reproduced. A nutria's pregnancy lasts about a month at the most. So, as Lou Verner, an urban biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, puts it, "Basically they're always pregnant." (Maybe that's why nutria have two rows of nipples on their backs. Yes, it's true.) Texas has no statewide office that handles regulation and control of the invasive species. That means individual localities decide how to handle critters like nutria and fire ants, which aren't from here and don't have any major predators, and, as a result, are thriving like crazy.
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In Big Bend National Park, fences have been erected around natural springs for fear nutria will finish off what's left of the area's endangered mosquitofish. It's an entirely different story in Dallas, however, where there are no truly large bodies of water and hardly any native vegetation in the lakes. Nutria trapped by local animal control employees simply get released in uninhabited places "around town," Robertson says.
After hearing the saga of the nutria while waiting at the edge of Bachman Lake one bright Sunday for the carp to bite, Enrique Lopez dubs the nutria he's seen paddling around "mojados" (wetbacks). But after recalling the critters got to Louisiana by boat, he decides they're simply "undocumented."
He and his friend Manuel Morales, who fishes Bachman Lake for carp and catfish about once a week, don't mind the furry fishing companions. Every once in a while, a nutria will paddle over to Morales' shaded spot along the lake and crawl out of the water over to the plastic bag holding his bait--often stale tortillas. A couple of the nervy rodents have even attempted to snag a piece. He doesn't see them as pesky, however. "They don't bother me, I don't bother them," Morales says. Lucky for the city, Dallas' lack of wet, heavily vegetated areas helps keep the local nutria community in check, Verner says. Indeed, a quick survey of Bachman Lake's littered parameter reveals an area practically free of anything worth tearing up. This might explain why the lake's nutria are uncharacteristically brazen at times.
"Maybe we just don't have anything there that they really like other than the people feeding them," maintenance manager Naranjo says.