A litter of young nutria. Nutria are an invasive species in Louisiana. Photo: John Eastcott and Yva Momatiuk / National Geographic

By Joanna M. Foster
7 May 2013

(Takepart.com) – On the southern edge of Louisiana, there is almost as much water as land. You can't drive to anyone's house, you have to travel by boat, and sometimes there are hours of water between neighbors. It takes a special breed to make a home here, in the swamp, amongst the mosquitos and almost annual hurricanes. But those who do call it home, love it. They see a magical space of strange stillness and subtle rippling greens and grays where time worries no one and the freedom of the water is at your doorstep.

But this Huck Finn way of life is being attacked on multiple fronts. Climate change's stronger storms are beating away at the fragile coastline, and the oil and gas industries are scarring the skyline while luring younger generations away from the local farming and fishing way of life. As if that weren't enough, 20-pound, semi-aquatic rodents, called nutria, which are native to Argentina, are taking over the marshes, devouring the native plants that hold the soil in place, and causing massive coastal erosion. Chris Metzier, an independent documentary filmmaker, has spent months in these swamps on the front lines of this battle, filming his upcoming documentary Rodents of Unusual Size. He sat down with me recently to talk about nutria and the interesting people who are fighting them to save their way of life. 

Chris Metzier: Nutria are something like a cross between a beaver and a New York sewer rat. They were first brought to Louisiana in the 1930s in order to be farmed for their fur, which was growing in popularity. No one knows exactly how they escaped into the wild. Maybe someone let them go when the fur industry was failing, or perhaps it was the work of a hurricane that tore apart a barn they were being kept in. One way or another, they escaped into the swamps and have just gone crazy. This part of Louisiana is just like a big playground for them. And they can breed within months of being born and have multiple litters a year. There are now about five million nutria in this part of Louisiana. There are nutria in other parts of the country, as well, but nowhere have they made themselves quite so much at home as in Louisiana. That's great for nutria, I guess, but they eat everything that grows, and without plants holding the soil in place, it is eroding away at record speeds—about 40 square miles per year, for several decades now. […]

Do you address climate change as you tell the story?

Climate change will definitely be discussed. Many people are very conservative in this region, but also quite libertarian. People take facts for facts and they see climate change around them. While they might not be activists in protests, they understand it better than most. The two things that southern Louisiana depends on are farming and fishing, and the petroleum industry. A lot of young people leave communities to go work on the rigs because it provides so much more money than conventional careers in the area. But it is the fossil fuel industry that exacerbates the local environmental issues. Maybe this part of Louisiana could have made it even with all the nutria if not for climate change. The two together … I just don't know how these people who love their home so much are going to go on living here. [more]

Giant Swamp Rats Are Literally Eating Louisiana

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