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Backstory: Accidental tourist on the run

Cute, but no longer a fashion statement, the prolific and environmentally destructive nutria is the focus of wildlife officials from coast to coast.

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The consequences of the nutria's work in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge here in Dorchester County are visible: vast expanses of open water where once there was marsh, here and there ash-colored dead trees rising at cockeyed angles from the shallow reaches. In the late '80s about 40,000 nutria thrived here. Several frigid winters decimated that population, but not before the nutria, gobbling up roots, dislodging plants, and dispersing the soil that held them, had destroyed half the Blackwater's 13,000 acres of marsh.

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In 2002, about 10,000 nutria held out within and around the Blackwater's marshlands, when Mr. Kendrot of the USDA launched the Nutria Eradication Program. By deploying experienced trappers to bait and trap over and over again, the animals were virtually eliminated. "Now there are only about a dozen," says Kendrot. "We have trouble finding nutria in the Blackwater Refuge."

Kendrot has degrees in wildlife management and ecology, a patient manner, and is given to second thoughts: Shortly after his initial claim, as we approached a pen containing several captive nutria (they looked shifty, suspicious, and fearful), he distanced himself from his estimate: "Don't quote me on a number. Let's just say they're effectively gone, reduced by 99 percent or more."

No one would be put off by a little boastfulness. In fact, a couple years back a report in a Washington newspaper declared the war against the nutria won in the Blackwater.

Kendrot is leery of breast beating; it might give his superiors the impression he has nothing to do. In fact, he has plenty to do: "We're poised to expand outward. Our mission is to eradicate nutria from all of Delmarva."

If the estimates of nutria infestation are accurate, his campaign in the refuge was just a skirmish compared with what lies ahead. The refuge may be nutria-free, but Dorchester County, which harbors the "nutria source population" for every place around it, is not.

The Virginia portion of Delmarva, he says, is "lightly populated." Delaware, too.

When I told him I had seen nutria in Delaware, his eyes brightened: "Maybe you saw muskrats." Then he asked where I saw them, so he might send someone to investigate.

When I returned to the Bethany Beach site in Delaware, I talked to the owner of an antique shop nearby. He said, "We've got nutria all around. They're everywhere."

Dan Murphy, a federal Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who's with the eradication program, says he's aware of nutria in Delaware. "They're in the state parks. We know they are there. We'll go to Delaware."

He estimates a campaign to rid the Chesapeake of every nutria would cost up to $4 million and require 40 more people, mostly trappers. He stresses the word eradication, not control. Control is what's happening in Louisiana, he says. With 20 million nutria, and where winters are too warm to kill off large numbers of nutria, a species that despite its century-long presence in North America has never learned to create a dwelling that would shield it from the cold, control is all they can do.

Mr. Murphy believes eradication is possible on Delmarva: "If we don't eradicate them, they'll be back after a few warm winters. We think we can."

Not everyone agrees. "The nutria will be back," says Carter.