By Michelle Hunter, East Jefferson bureau Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
NEW ORLEANS, La. — For almost a dozen years now, SWAT team snipers have been hunting the hordes of nutria that have made their home in Jefferson Parish's drainage canals.
It's an ongoing struggle of man versus varmint that bears some resemblance to a Looney Tunes tale: the never-ending duel between Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny.
But Jefferson authorities, unlike Fudd, aren't squeamish in the least about their killing task.
The pesky nutria lack Bugs' "wascally" charm. And because their orange chompers have cut such a costly swath through the parish's canal banks -- not to mention Louisiana's valuable wetlands -- fewer people than ever bat an eyelash when the bullets fly at the rodent, imported here from South America.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee and his marksmen have been taking aim at nutria since the early summer of 1995. But since no one keeps a Jefferson-specific nutria census, officials can't definitively say whether the numbers are down. Families of nutria can still be seen frolicking at dusk near the craters they've dug into walls of the West Esplanade Avenue canal. It seems the animals are nowhere near the endangered species list. And it looks as if they never will be.
So all these years later, did the Jefferson Parish Council choose wisely when it accepted what seemed like a zany offer from Lee to institute Night Out Against Nutria?
Experts on the furry menace, parish officials, SWAT team members and even some animal rights activists -- albeit begrudgingly -- say yes. "The only viable solution was the sheriff's suggestion to shoot them," said William Duplaisir, a superintendent with the Jefferson Parish Department of Drainage.
Jefferson Parish's nutria extermination squad gathered two Thursdays ago about 10:30 p.m. in the parking lot next door to the Dunkin' Donuts on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie, despite a slightly chilly breeze that marked the start of what would become the first major rain event in the New Orleans area this year.
Determined to pop a few nutria before the rain began to fall, SWAT team members climbed into the back of a Jefferson Parish drainage department pickup and started their first pass on West Esplanade at Lake Villa Drive. They drove at a deliberate pace that allowed Sgts. Benny Griffin and Scott Wildey to look for telltale signs of nutria along the nearly pitch-black banks.
Griffin said it takes an experienced eye to find them: small ripples in the water made by the swimmers, the barely visible tops of nutria heads bobbing near burrows and the tiny pinpricks of red reflected when light hits their eyes.
What is easily discernible is the damage they've done to the canals. Nutria use their clawed forepaws to excavate what can be complex systems of burrows into the banks. The tunnels disturb the ground supporting drainage pipes, cracking them, according to Duplaisir. They also weaken the bank face, causing it to disintegrate in some places.
When dug deeply enough, nutria holes can destabilize roadways. And their penchant for munching on canal bank vegetation has left many spots vulnerable to erosion.
In 2006, nutria destroyed approximately 12,000 feet of canal bank, leaving Jefferson Parish with a $500,000 repair bill, Duplaisir said.
"That's a condominium," shouted Sgt. Kenny Latour, the designated spotlight man, as he pointed to multiple holes bunched together in the side of one crumbling bank. That kind of destruction caused just as much of a panic in early 1994 when Jefferson Parish officials first sounded the alarm on the nutria menace. At the time, they put canal damage estimates at $6 million to $8 million.
Nutria, largely thought to have been imported into Louisiana for their fur during the 1930s, have a prolific reproduction ethic.
Males can reach sexual maturity as early as 4 months old, females at 3 months, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. For them, it's always breeding season. They can produce two litters of as many as 13 young and be pregnant with a third in one year's time.
After a study put the Jefferson Parish nutria population at about 9,200 in 1995, officials were desperate to annihilate their furry hides. The solutions varied from zinc phosphide-poisoned sweet potatoes, tiny nooses set to drown the rodents when they emerged from their burrows and traps to humanely euthanize them, Duplaisir said. Suggestions of the odder sort included releasing alligators, the nutria's only natural predator. Duplaisir also recalled another man who wanted officials to trap, sterilize and release them all.
The problem then, as now, was the efficacy of the other options, according to Duplaisir and Edmond Mouton, a biologist and program manager for Wildlife and Fisheries' nutria-control program. There were obvious problems with letting alligators have the run of the canal system.
Poisons had to be administered by an expert certified in the job, and that wasn't cheap. Duplaisir said it would have run the parish about $510,000 the first year. Plus, many residents were leery of having those chemicals so close to their homes, children and pets.
Animal rights activists also balked at the plan, saying it posed dangers to the rest of the area's wildlife.
Though there were trappers willing to go to work in Jefferson Parish, the thought of puppies and kittens getting caught in nutria traps gave the public pause, Duplaisir said. The $60-an-hour price tag for trappers also may have caused some hesitation.
All of the potential solutions had their drawbacks, and in some way seemed inefficient in the urban setting, Mouton said. "It takes a lot of work, especially when you're dealing with large populations."
Seeing the effects
And so it came to pass that when Sheriff Harry Lee stood before the Parish Council and offered up his cheap, but unorthodox, suggestion to simply shoot their way out of the nutria nuisance, officials eventually approved the idea -- once they finished laughing. SWAT team snipers took a few test-round hunts in Lafreniere Park in Metairie and along a few canals. They then picked up a special permit that allowed them to circumvent state laws forbidding nighttime nutria shooting. Then, the hunt was on.
In the early days, Sheriff's Office sharpshooters were making weekly patrols of the canal, tagging as many as 400 nutria a shift, according to Maj. Kerry Najolia. The SWAT team commander handled traffic duty that Thursday night a few weeks ago, trailing the slow-moving nutria death squad in his patrol car with his blue lights flashing.
The first nutria bagged that night was a medium-sized fellow spotted swimming in the middle of the canal almost immediately after the truck turned onto West Esplanade. Easy pickings. A quick pop from the .22-caliber rifle, a glimmer of hot flying brass and a bit of thrashing in the water, and it was all over.
Still, things seemed slow to the deputies who remember the way it used to be. "When we went out, you'd see 30 to 40 of them just sitting on the bank," Najolia said.
But no more. Snipers Griffin and Wildey, both Sheriff's Office nutria hunters since 1999, said they now average about 100 to 140 of the rat-like pests a shift. And that's how they know they've cut down the parish's nutria population. "We believe that without a doubt, it truly helps," Griffin said. The Sheriff's Office has eradicated 14,437 nutria since the snipers picked up their rifles, including about 412 this year, according to statistics provided by the department. The shoots, which range all over the east bank and West Bank of Jefferson Parish, are now scheduled according to complaints.
They usually occur once or twice a month, with the only hiccup being a six-month hiatus after Hurricane Katrina because of staffing shortages at the Sheriff's Office. And they do so free of charge -- well, for the cost of a .22-caliber round, which Najolia said was only pennies.
Mouton regulates the folks who trap and kill the rodents in other parts of the state for a $5-a-tail bounty through Louisiana's nutria-control program. But he said the sheriff is addressing the problem within his capacity as a lawman. "The shooting that Harry Lee is conducting is probably one of the better methods as far as efficiency," he said.
Jeff Dorson, executive director of the Louisiana Humane Society isn't crazy about the Sheriff's Office nutria hunts, but he understands what's at stake. "I wish I had a nonlethal method," he said. "Nobody in 12 years of them doing this has come up with a better plan than that."
Job is never done
Though they can make for easy prey once they're in the cross hairs, nutria are definitely no dodos. Unlike the now-extinct species of bird that earned its name by standing there fearlessly as hunters stalked right up to them, nutria have learned a thing or too about the art of evasion. Most hit the water at the slightest sound during the hunt a few weeks ago, making a beeline for their burrows. They scattered quickly instead of sticking around for a handout of food from a friendly human, as they once did, according to Najolia.
"As long as we've been doing this, I haven't figured them out," Griffin said.
The name Nutria Eradication Program notwithstanding, Duplaisir said parish officials no longer think they can simple kill off their rodent problems. The animals multiply so fast, they've come to accept that unless nutria make a mass migration to some other state, the Sheriff's Office SWAT team will continue to play a part-time role in the parish's pest-control plans.
"We're out here to do a job," Griffin said.
Michelle Hunter can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 883-7054.