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They shoot giant rats to fight climate change

The Nutria Rodeo is more than a hunting competition. It’s a battle in the war to save Louisiana’s coastline.

By Chelsea Brasted

Just shy of sunset on a cold February day, Gabe Macormic cracks open a fresh beer, tightens the American flag bandana keeping his mullet in check, and gets back to work counting the nearly 2,000 dead swamp rats piled up on the marina decks in Venice, Louisiana.

The dead rats — more correctly called nutria — are the result of the 2022 Nutria Rodeo. Each one was shot and killed in an attempt toward taking back the delicate, endangered ecosystem all along the Louisiana coastline.

At the moment, though, there’s nothing delicate about the scene on the marina decking. Full-grown nutria are somewhere between the size of a large housecat and a middling raccoon, so the piles of hundreds at a time quickly stack up. On the deck beyond, a zydeco band warms up for the party that will cap off the hunt’s second and final day. It all ends with a nutria toss, rewarding the man and woman who can throw the body of a swamp rat the farthest. 

“Driving around on the boats in the water with friends, it’s a good time, and if you feel like you accomplish something good, it helps you feel like you have a better time,” Macormic says during a break in counting. “We definitely wouldn’t be here if [the nutria] weren’t an invasive species.”

Louisiana’s nutria problem is decades in the making. As the population has grown — to 20 million, by one estimate — so, too has the havoc the rodents wreak on the state’s receding coastline. That’s why shooting them for sport is more than just a good time for hunters: It’s a key part of the land management strategy for fighting the impacts of climate change.

“I’m a big duck hunter, and I love hunting and fishing. Down the coast, we see first-hand the loss of land down here,” Macormic says. “[Hunting nutria] is one of the things we can do to help.”

After a years-long break when the original event organizers ended their participation, Macormic, a south Louisiana native, revived the Nutria Rodeo in 2021. This year, the event more than doubled in size, with more than 200 hunters signed up to participate. A homegrown nutria mitigation effort like Macormic’s, which in 2022 hauled in 1,934 rats, takes just a small bite out of what, in Louisiana, is an expansive problem.

Nutria (pronounced NEW-tree-ah) are fast-breeding, semi-aquatic rodents who thrive in colonies along swampy coastlines and lakes. They’re a particularly hungry invasive species. They feast on the roots of marsh plants, loosening the soil below. As the tides come in and out, the water takes the loosened soil into the Gulf of Mexico, and with it, Louisiana’s natural defense against coastal erosion and major storms. At one point, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, nutria were responsible for more than 100,000 acres in coastline damage.

“It’s the plants that are the glue that hold our marsh together,” says Jennifer Hogue-Manuel, who manages the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Coastwide Nutria Control Program. “[Nutria are] pulling that glue apart, and that can really exacerbate the erosion of our coastal marshes. Once they’re lost, they’re lost forever. There’s no good way to regenerate naturally.”

A single highway takes you to Venice, Louisiana, in the very toe of the state’s boot. Pass through smaller and smaller towns in Plaquemines Parish, and you may spot a dead nutria on the side of the road. The trees nearby are still filled with tangled debris left by Hurricane Ida, which passed through the area in late summer last year.

The road itself, Louisiana Highway 23, knits together what’s left of the landscape. The longer you drive, the closer the water appears on either side. Eventually, there’s barely even a shoulder before the roadway drops off into the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, the homes here get taller, their foundations just stilts jutting out of the earth.

Even without nutria, this part of the country would be endangered — a fact that becomes ever clearer with every passing hurricane season. The coastline here, weakened by miles of oil and gas companies’ canals, is chewed away as sea levels rise and stronger storms batter the state. The swamp rats’ destruction just hastens the process, to which Venice has long held a front-row seat.

Steam rises from chef Philippe Parola’s pot as he stirs his nutria gumbo. The sign offering bowlfuls offers another take on the day: “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em!”

The small, close-knit community is at the very edge of the state, a location that has earned it the nickname “the end of the world.” Maps for this part of Louisiana can easily deceive a newcomer, where what looks like solid ground can be anything but. Venice itself has been nearly wiped off the maps by multiple storms, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

As the sun sets on the Nutria Rodeo’s second day, the zydeco band kicks up; the crowd of hunters and curious onlookers is all bundled up in camouflage waders, knit beanies and the satisfaction of a job well done. On the Venice Marina dock, a dry erase board bears the latest tallies as Macormic’s team readies itself to crown the day’s victors for “most nutria shot” and “heaviest nutria killed.” The contenders for the latter hang by the tail from the marina’s rafters, their limp bodies rotating slightly in the breeze. From behind, a nutria is decidedly unremarkable — their fur comes in shades of dark brown — but you know you’ve spotted one by the two-inch, macaroni-and-cheese-colored teeth that draw down from their noses.

The last of 62 teams check in as the 6 p.m. deadline nears, each one arriving on an airboat that took them into the swamplands, hauled behind a pick-up truck. In the trucks’ beds are oversized, gray Rubbermaid trash cans, each one heavy with dead swamp rats. To count each one, they’re tossed into plastic wheelbarrows. There’s steady laughter and chatter, and the air smells like sour beer and recent death.

Nearby, hunter Jonathan Landry holds in his pocket a baby nutria he rescued earlier in the day, offering curious onlookers a first-hand understanding of just how soft the little swamp rats are. Steam rises from chef Philippe Parola’s pot as he stirs his nutria gumbo. The sign offering bowlfuls offers another take on the day: “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em!”

The nutria origin story is infamous here, routinely told in middle-school science classrooms. Local businessmen, including E.A. McIlhenny, the son of Tabasco hot sauce founder Edmund McIlhenny, once hoped to capitalize on the fur trade. In the 20th century, they brought in nutria from South America in the hopes of establishing a quickly renewable and profitable source. It turned out, however, that few members of the well-to-do class wanted to wear swamp rat, and the fur trade for nutria never took off. But the population sure did.  

“They quickly went rogue, became invasive and started causing problems all over the place,” says Ben Dittbrenner, an environmental science professor at Northeastern University.

The nutria story is hardly unique, he adds.

“We’ve seen species introduction fail time and time again across every continent, with people bringing in other species because they think they’ll be valuable … or help control another population of nuisance animals,” says Dittbrenner, whose research primarily focuses on beavers. That animal had essentially the exact same trajectory as nutria, but in Argentina: They were brought there to create a fur trade, then took to the environment a little too well. The population is responsible for colonizing nearly 30,000 square miles in that country.

It’s a story repeated around the world. Giant African snails, introduced in Hawaii as garden ornaments, exploded in numbers. Soon, the invasive wolf snail was introduced to control them. Kudzu, native to Japan, was introduced in the United States as an ornamental plant and has since exploded in coverage area. In Australia, cane toads were brought in to help control a beetle population, instead becoming a problem all on their own.

Looking around, it can feel like the hunters at the Nutria Rodeo have really made a dent, but the nutria population here is so staggering, local officials measure it only by the amount of land it destroys. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, pegs Louisiana’s nutria population at around 20 million.) This led the state to develop its own bounty program 20 years ago.

The state offers $6 a tail to registered hunters, creating a demand for the dead rats where otherwise there wouldn’t be one. On the open market, the pelts, Hogue-Manuel says, are worth only about $2 apiece, with the fur heading to some more adventurous and environmentally conscious textile-makers. (Macormic’s Nutria Rodeo doesn’t cash in on the state-offered bounties; instead, some of the rats were offered up to the local zoo and an alligator farm as food. The rest were buried.)

This season, state officials hope to get rid of 400,000 nutria. Since the program’s inception, it has helped to draw down the state’s damaged acreage from its height of more than 100,000 to just under 15,000 acres at last count.

The state “looked at all kinds of things — sterilization, poison, all kinds of things for controlling nuisance wildlife — and this program had the lowest cost and highest benefit,” Hogue-Manuel says. “And it’s quite popular with the public.”

That aspect — public buy-in — is a crucial part of controlling and, even better, eradicating invasive species, especially with nutria. This was a problem caused by people, and it’ll have to be solved by people, too.

That was the case in Maryland, which also suffered from the marsh-eating problems that come with an invasive nutria population. In looking to eradicate them, the state never used a bounty system, says Trevor Michaels, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in the Chesapeake Bay. Bounties work better when management is the goal, as in Louisiana, versus eradication, which was more feasible in Maryland.

Eventually, constant pressure, trapping, and public education about how to spot a nutria paid off. Michaels says his team hasn’t seen a sign of a nutria since 2015.  Nutria haven’t been formally declared eradicated there — it is physically impossible to prove something doesn’t exist — but officials believe they’re close. And it wouldn’t have happened without the community on board.

“We always depended on the public,” says Michaels. “We needed all those private landowners for access, because nutria don’t obey property boundaries.”

The size of Louisiana’s nutria population likely makes it impossible to eliminate them entirely, but the fight continues, season after season. For his part, Macormic, who lives half of the year on a houseboat in the Venice Marina and the other half on his medical cannabis farm in California, will make sure it does.

As the count at the Nutria Rodeo winds down, Macormic acknowledges that he wasn’t able to do much hunting of his own while he managed the event. Still, he and his team were able to nab 60 rats — a number he still feels good about, even as the leading teams roll in with several hundred.

At 37, Macormic has already seen the landscape here change too much in his own lifetime not to understand what’s at stake. “The marsh is just so different. Random ponds are now just open water.”

If the Nutria Rodeo can help protect that land, it seems an easy way to do his part.

“They’re taking our land from us, so we’re here to take it back,” he says. “One shot, one dead rat at a time.”

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Chelsea Brasted is a writer based in New Orleans. She has written for National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Bon Appetit.


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