Frequently Asked Questions -
Virginia Eastern Shore Nutria
(Click on the FAQ below to view the answer)
What is a nutria?
Nutria (Myocastor coypus) are large aquatic rodents native to South America. Nutria can weigh up to 20 lbs and are up to 3 feet long including the tail. They feed mostly on aquatic vegetation, but will leave the water to feed on land as well. Nutria were brought to North America around 1900 as a new source of fur and were released at various locations throughout the United States.
Why are wildlife biologists concerned about nutria?
When nutria become established in an area, they can cause tremendous damage to natural ecosystems by eating aquatic vegetation. Removal of this vegetation destroys food and habitat for native wildlife and can result in permanent damage to the wetlands. The wetlands surrounding Chesapeake Bay are extremely important to the health of the bay and its fish and shellfish populations. Nutria also damage private property by gnawing (chewing) landscaping plants and by burrowing into levees and undermining waterfront bulkheads. They also impact agriculture by consuming plants and produce, especially strawberries, melons, and pumpkins. Female nutria can bear young by six months of age and can produce up to 30 young in their lifetimes, so they can infest new habitats very quickly.
Are nutria on the Eastern Shore of Virginia?
Nutria have been found on the Eastern Shore in the past. Two nutria were captured by a trapper in Saxis Wildlife Management Area in Accomack County in 1998 and reported to the Virginia Department of Game and inland Fisheries (VDGIF). Another was found on Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in 2004. Until recently, no other nutria were reported until biologists from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and VDGIF found nutria tracks in 2012 in Pitts Creek, a tributary to the Pocomoke River in northern Accomack County.
Are nutria found elsewhere in Virginia?
Nutria are common in southeastern Virginia, south of the James River in the communities of Virginia Beach westward to Suffolk. In the United States, nutria occur in separate, distinct populations as the result of many unrelated introductions. Biologists believe that the nutria in southeastern Virginia are an extension of a larger population that stretches throughout eastern North Carolina. Similarly, nutria on the Eastern Shore are an extension of the population centered in Maryland and each population is managed as a single unit. Biologists believe that the two populations are distinct and that the Chesapeake Bay currently serves as a barrier separating the populations.
How did nutria get to the Eastern Shore?
Nutria were introduced to the DelMarVa Peninsula in the early 1940s in the vicinity of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland. Nutria populations grew and expanded into watersheds throughout Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore and they have been spotted in northern portions of bayside Accomack County.
What can be done about nutria damage?
Although nutria are well-suited to Virginia's wetland environments, their damage can be reduced and populations can be removed through aggressive wildlife management measures, especially if the populations are small and isolated. Nutria management requires close coordination among wildlife management agencies, outdoor enthusiasts, and landowners.
The Chesapeake Bay Nutria Eradication Project (CBNEP) is an example of a nearby partnership of government agencies, private organizations, and landowners who have combined efforts to protect the wetland habitats from the damaging effects of nutria. This extremely successful partnership includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Wildlife Services program, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), Delaware Natural Resources and Environmental Control ( DNREC), and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). In addition to these agencies, nearly 500 landowners have provided critical support to the program by providing access to their privately owned marshes.
Have nutria management programs been effective elsewhere?
In 2002, the CBNEP launched an ambitious campaign to eradicate nutria. Beginning at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland, wildlife specialists initiated a pilot project to develop effective nutria detection and removal methods and test the feasibility of eradicating nutria on a large scale. By 2006, the team had reduced nutria throughout southern Dorchester County to nearly undetectable levels, and has since prevented a reinvasion. Between 2007 and 2011, the team also removed nutria from the Choptank River, Nanticoke River, Ellis Bay, Deal Island Wildlife Management Area, and Deal Island. Since 2011, the team has been focused on determining the distribution of remaining populations throughout Delmarva by investigating sightings reported by natural resource managers and citizens, and by searching along navigable waterways connected to past infestations.
What will happen next on Virginia’s Eastern Shore?
Biologists from USDA, USFWS, and VDGIF will try to determine if nutria populations have become established on Virginia's Eastern Shore and which watersheds are affected. Project partners will seek information from outdoor enthusiasts who may have seen them and will conduct surveys in the bayside marshes and waterways to look for evidence of nutria. If nutria populations are found, biologists will try to determine the extent of infestation and work with local authorities and landowners to review options for managing the problem.
How can Virginians help?
Landowners and outdoor enthusiasts including birders, boaters, hunters, and trappers are the people most likely to see nutria, and they can play an important role in the early detection of this destructive invasive species. Reported nutria observations will allow project personnel to respond quickly and minimize the amount of time spent searching for, and removing nutria.