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Hunting Nutria in Louisiana's Bayous

Trapper Paul Autin shows off some of his nutria pelts.
Melanie Peeples, NPR News /
Trapper Paul Autin shows off some of his nutria pelts.
Doug Robinson tallies nutria tails brought in by trappers. Each tail is worth $4.
Melanie Peeples, NPR News /
Doug Robinson tallies nutria tails brought in by trappers. Each tail is worth $4.

Voracious orange-toothed rodents called nutria are devouring Louisiana's endangered wetlands. In the latest attempt to stop the decades of destruction, Louisiana officials have placed a $4 bounty for each rodent captured and killed. In the bayous of southern Louisiana, NPR’s Melanie Peeples met with some enterprising trappers who make money killing the pests.

The animal, which looks like a small beaver with a rat-like tail, is native to Argentina and at one time was farmed in Louisiana for its fur and meat. But some nutria escaped, and now the rodent is a pest all over the South, devouring small plants and sparking major erosion problems. And disappearing wetlands mean trouble for Louisiana’s indigenous animals: mink, otters and bald eagles.

Years ago, the nutria population was kept in check because trappers could sell the furs for a decent price. "Its brown fur is pretty, and though it's not as fashionable as it used to be, the fur is still used for hats and coat linings," Peeples says.

But when that price dropped from $5 a pelt to less than $1 in the 1990s, many trappers just quit -- and the nutria flourished. With the bounty system in place, more trappers are hunting the bayous again. And state officials say there's enough money in the budget to keep the nutria bounty program running for another 20 years.

Five years ago, the state encouraged eating nutria as a way to thin out the population -- and for a while, famous Louisiana chefs were serving it up in the finest New Orleans restaurants.

Trapper Paul Autin has plenty of nutria meat on hand, but he and his fellow trappers don't eat it much. "We never got into eating it, I guess (because) the looks... it looks like a rat. It’s not a pretty animal."

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