Politics & Government

Pest rodent nutria will find itself in gun sights at Capitol Lake

Some evening soon, a rifle-toting crew from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is scheduled to show up near Olympia’s downtown — probably after dark — to begin shooting a pest rodent known as nutria. The South American native animal has taken up residence along the banks of Capitol Lake, and there is evidence its population is starting to grow.

State surveys identified a dozen of the 2-foot-long furry animals, and typically the actual population is three times what is seen in surveys, according to the state Department of Enterprise Services. The agency describes nutria as a furry rodent that is often mistaken for beaver, is dark brown, and has orange teeth and white whiskers.

“What we’re embarking on is pest control. It’s not eradication,” said Curt Hart, a spokesman for the state Department of Enterprise Services, which manages the state-owned park surrounding the lake. “I don’t know you could ever get rid of an aquatic mammal that moves around like this one.’’

DES hired wildlife agents to shoot the animals, which are considered an invasive species, because it is considered the most humane and effective of four options looked at. Poisoning was quickly ruled out because of proximity to fish-bearing waters and risk of harming other species; so were a couple of different approaches to trapping, which could have captured the wrong animals including wandering pets, Hart said.

“It really makes the most sense for us to use this lethal method — to have experts going out at night in two-man teams. One will use a spotlight, one will have the firearm,’’ Hart said. “The pest control work could take anywhere from a few days to several weeks.’’

Todd Stewart, a wildlife biologist and assistant supervisor of USDA’s western Washington wildlife district, said timing of the shootings depends on behavior of the animals, which are noctural this time of year. So work is likely to be done after dark. He said the department’s plan is based first on safety, and he noted the teams have experience killing nuisance animals with firearms in urban areas, including greater Seattle.

Hart said they are coordinating with state and local police.

No evidence suggests nutria are causing physical damage around the lake shore, but the species is known to construct large burrows that can affect nearby roadbeds, as well as harm vegetation and habitat. Hart said federal and state wildlife experts have recommended controlling the population.

The public should expect to notice very little when the killings are carried out. Some passersby may notice a spotlight used by the hunters along the shore, but noise suppressors on the .22-caliber rifles are expected to muffle most of the sound of shots being fired. Details were not available, such as which day the crews will arrive.

“Our impact to the general public will be minimal,’’ Stewart said Friday. He said there is “a very good probability the public won’t know” agents have come and gone.

The state contract with USDA is for $5,000, but that’s a more open ended-contract that also allows the state to use federal agents to deal with other animals considered a nuisance, such as Canada geese.

Nutria were brought to Washington for use by the fur industry during the 1930s, according to a fact sheet compiled by DES. Once released or escaped into the wild, the species rapidly spread.