Nutrias cause significant damage to coastal areas because they eat the roots of marsh plants. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Giant Rodents Eradicated on Md. Eastern Shore

By Jeremy Cox, Bay Journal News Service

State and federal wildlife officials are declaring a rare victory over an invasive pest in Maryland.

After more than 20 years of effort, they announced Sept. 16 that the state is officially free of nutrias, a species of giant rodents that once numbered in the thousands on the Eastern Shore.

“After years of hard work and partnership, we have proven that eradication of this invasive species is possible,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio.

Corey Abott, right, and USDA’s Steve Kendrot set a nutria trap along Maryland’s Wicomico River. Photo: Dave Harp

Nutrias are believed to have been introduced from South America in the 1940s and were bred for the fur market. Once loosed into the wild, the rodents’ habit of consuming marsh plants — roots and all — led to the destruction of 5,000 acres of wetlands in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, an important migrating bird and waterfowl habitat.

A partnership involving DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division resulted in the removal of about 14,000 nutrias. Officials credit the use of specially trained detector dogs with speeding the eradication.

The last known nutria in Maryland was removed in May 2015. But officials weren’t ready to declare they had won the battle until survey teams, guided by computer models, completed a search of the wet landscape for possible stragglers.

The fight now appears to be moving across the Chesapeake Bay to tidewater Virginia. In 2020, nutrias were detected north of the James River for the first time, prompting a renewed push to map their range and begin removing them.