Seattleites take up arms against rats as big as cats

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SEATTLE (AP) - Nutria - a voracious herbivore as big as a large house cat and prone to molelike digging that turns lake shores into Swiss cheese - are enemy No. 1 for some Seattle residents and businesses.





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SEATTLE (AP) - Nutria - a voracious herbivore as big as a large house cat and prone to molelike digging that turns lake shores into Swiss cheese - are enemy No. 1 for some Seattle residents and businesses.

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People are joining forces to launch an attack to beat back the semi-aquatic invader from South America. With an ability to reproduce rapidly and a tendency to expand its territory, residents in the Portage Bay and Laurelhurst neighborhoods, local marina users and the University of Washington are talking about ways to rid the area of the so-called swamp rats.

On a paddleboat tour of Lake Union's Portage Bay on a recent morning, resident Annie Stixrood points out nutria damage.

Hunks of the marshy bank have vanished. Clumps of irises and cattails form tiny archipelagos where the creatures have munched and burrowed through what was once a solid shoreline.

"All of these clumps are nutria-created," Stixrood said. "This is a lot of open water."

Just then, a grebe paddled by.

"They could build a nest and a nutria buzzes through and they're a goner," she said of the small bird. "I can't help but thinking this bird-nesting habitat is significantly affected."

"The impacts can be extremely damaging," agreed Barbara DeCaro, resource conservation coordinator for the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department. "These cattail marshes provide protection for flooding and habitat for critters and fish."

DeCaro is getting reports of nutria sightings at multiple shoreline parks and is concerned about their burrowing.

Nutria were brought to Washington in the 1930s and '40s for their fur. The big, brown rats didn't exactly take off as a fashion statement, and some of the rodents either escaped or were released when the fur farms closed.

Their Puget Sound-area population seemed to wane in later years - a sustained cold snap can kill them.

But now they're back, apparently aided by generally milder weather.

They've been spotted in wetlands all the way to the Canadian border and east to the Tri-Cities.

In April 2007, Oregon and Washington academics and government officials met to discuss the growing nutria problem and what should be done about it.

Resources for exterminating the invaders are limited.

There is no designated money in the state Department of Fish and Wildlife budget for controlling nutria; the agency is focused on more dire threats such as zebra and quagga mussels that can destroy aquatic ecosystems and clog dams and irrigation canals.

Two years ago, a U.S. Department of Agriculture trapping effort successfully eliminated nutria from Skagit County - at least for now. Like wolves, nutria populations have alpha males that are territorial and force other males to seek out new habitat of their own, driving their spread.

Nationwide, 15 states are known to have stable or increasing nutria populations. Louisiana and Maryland have each spent millions trying to control them. Their greatest numbers here are in Southwest Washington.

With its dark coat, nutria can be mistaken for beavers or muskrat, but they're identifiable by their ratlike tail and humped shape when on land.

Besides environmental destruction, the animals can be aggressive toward people and pets, and sometimes carry diseases that can sicken both.

"Nutria look like the biggest rat you'll ever see," said Charles Easterberg of the UW's Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and Sciences. "We would like to cleanse our premises of them."

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Those trying to control Seattle's nutria are looking to the USDA and the King County Conservation District for help. Removing the animals from Lake Union and the northwest area of Lake Washington could cost about $24,000, according to the USDA, which charges for trapping and euthanizing the rodents.

Stixrood and others are trying to get as many neighbors and businesses involved as possible in the trapping project.

"The broader it is," she said, "the more likely it'll be successful."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. Active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.

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