Global warming may be one of the reasons behind the recent appearance of football-sized, orange-toothed aquatic rodents in the Skagit River Valley of northwestern Washington.
Nutria, beaver-like creatures native to South America, are
notorious for destroying flood-control levees and chewing through
wetlands in the Southeastern United States. Fur entrepreneurs
brought them to this country in the late 19th century, and although
the pelt industry shriveled up, escaped nutria now thrive in 15
states, including Oregon and Washington. Each year, females can
bear two litters of up to twelve kits each, so the animals have
swiftly outpaced efforts to control them.
populations have been checked until now by cool temperatures and
limited wetlands, says Pamela Meacham of the state’s
Department of Fish and Wildlife. But the species’ appearance
in the Skagit River Valley earlier this year has Meacham worried
that mild winters and rising temperatures are allowing it to move
north, along with other warm-weather invasive species.
Across the Pacific Northwest, winter temperatures are rising faster
than the global average. Washington state climatologist Philip Mote
notes that the valley’s shrinking snowpack and changing river
flow patterns also suggest a local warming trend.
Valley residents and farmers are determined to kill off the nutria
before they gain a toehold; they fear that without quick action,
the burrowing animals could wreak havoc on the dikes that keep
low-lying land from flooding. A short-lived government eradication
program has run out of money, but The Nature Conservancy, a
nonprofit, has offered a $10,000 challenge grant towards a goal of
$30,000 for additional trapping.