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Trappers begin to thin herd of rodents in Cajun swamp

The nutria _ a furry, swamp-dwelling rodent that looks like a 10-pound rat with webbed feet _ is largely regarded as a nuisance in Louisiana's Cajun country. But it's a wanted creatures nonetheless.

Starting today, the state of Louisiana will pay a $4-a-tail bounty _ officials prefer the term "incentive" _ in hopes of wiping out 400,000 nutrias this winter.

The payment is part of an effort to save Louisiana's coast, which is disappearing at a rate of 35 square miles a year. Nutrias, a non-native species that has overrun Gulf of Mexico wetlands since the value of their fur plummeted in the early 1980s, devour plants that keep the soil from washing away.

Longtime trapper Paul Autin said the bounty might help preserve his way of life a little longer as well.

"It's going to be a big help and it will keep people out there," Autin said in a thick Cajun accent. "Years ago, every second or third house out here had trappers. Now I feel like I'm one of the only ones left."

Nutrias, which are nearly as large as beavers, have long, scaly tails, webbed hind feet and orange incisors. They were brought from Argentina in the 1930s and raised on farms for their fur. Some escaped into the wild, and now they are so populous that their flattened carcasses litter southern Louisiana highways whenever high water from a major storm chases them out of the marshes to higher ground.

The state has tried to market nutria meat. Many people say they taste like farm-raised rabbit, and are lean and high in protein. But demand has never been high among Americans, despite the efforts of local gourmet chefs to come up with recipes for nutria gumbo, sausage, chili and jerky.

"It's really quite good," said Edmond Mouton, a Louisiana native who works for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "People at duck camps would historically cook nutria and say it was marsh rabbit. Everybody ate it and they wouldn't know the difference unless they were told. So it's all in the mind."

But even 59-year-old Autin, who has been catching nutrias for four decades, has never eaten one.

"I'm sure they're good to eat. It's just that it's not a pretty animal," Autin said. "Of course, pretty shouldn't mean anything. You're not going to eat a cat and that's pretty."

State officials are looking toward China as a potential nutria market. But until they go nuts for nutria in Asia, the state has decided it will be worth $2-million to pay trappers to kill the rodents.

State wildlife officials say up to 100,000 acres of Louisiana marsh show signs of damage from nutrias. The damage ranges from thinning vegetation to land that has been eroded below the surface of the water.

To collect the bounty, trappers must present the nutria tails frozen or salted.

Autin, who 28 years ago took a full-time job as a swinging-bridge operator because the money in trapping was so bad, said the reward might be just enough to help him break even if he can get an extra dollar or two for the pelt and carcass.

Trappers use mud boats to set and haul metal leg traps. It takes an experienced, keen eye to recognize where nutrias are feeding by examining depressions in the marsh grass. Autin sets up 150 to 300 traps. His catch generally ranges from 15 to 50 a day _ 100 on a great day.

In the 1970s, trappers killed about 1.8-million nutrias a year and fur coat makers, mostly in Europe, paid $4 to $8 a pelt. But demand fell, especially with the rise in popularity of leather and synthetics.

Pelts might get $1 or so nowadays. Alligator farmers often buy the meat and grind it into feed, but they do not pay much more than a 25 cents a carcass.

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