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Giant Rodents Invade CA as Assembly Bill 273 Urges Ban on Trapping Fur-Bearing Animals

ANIMAL WATCH-Councilman Paul Koretz declared on September 18, 2018," We did it! Today my City Council colleagues voted unanimously to ban the sale and manufacture of fur in the City of LA as of 2020!"

Thanking his colleagues Bob Blumenfield and Mitch O'Farrell for their leadership and partnership, he proclaimed, "We're excited to bring an end to a cruel and inhumane practice." 

Now the issue has captured the attention of San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, who wants to see all commerce of fur-bearing mammals stopped by the latest symbol of California's humaneness, AB 273, a very complex bill in the Sacramento legislature to ban trapping of fur-bearing mammals or nongame mammals. 

AB 273 is reminiscent of the blindfold of the statewide, puppy-mill pet shop ban, which closed an already diminished number of highly regulated small businesses and has been a boon to uncontrolled backyard breeders, unscrupulous rescuers offering purchased mill-bred puppies as “saved,” and unregulated online puppy sales from other states and countries. A trapping ban, which will have miniscule impact, and will also result in reduction in the number of Fish and Wildlife officers, removes California from any meaningful governance that directly affects the realities of animal welfare and protection. 

ANIMAL TRAPPING IN CA ALREADY A DYING INDUSTRY 

Animal trapping in California is already phasing out on its own as a result of humane concerns by the public and activists' pressure to discourage wearing fur. It’s also being affected by the import of all types of inexpensive fur-studded clothing, cosmetics, toys and other items from China and other countries that do not have the strict U.S. rules, oversight, and financial and criminal penalties for cruelty to animals. 

San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, who introduced AB 273 -- called the Wildlife Protection Act of 2019 -- admits that only 68 trapping permits were sold in California last year to allow legally taking of a reported 1,568 animals -- most of which were coyotes. 

NOTWITHSTANDING THE HUMANE ASPECT...A VERY COMPLICATED LAW 

Although activists argue that fur trapping is cruel and anachronistic, the Assemblywoman justifies AB 273 for financial reasons, the LA Times  reports. "Not only does the cruel fur trapping trade decimate our increasingly vulnerable wildlife populations,” she said, “running this state trapping program doesn’t even make fiscal policy sense.” 

She also asserts that "wildlife viewing in California has become a larger source of income than fur trapping." However, she doesn't explain how "viewing" generates income. Most natural wildlife viewing takes place in public parks maintained by tax dollars. 

“Taxpayers are subsidizing this unnecessary commercial activity, because the cost of running this program isn’t even covered by the revenue from trapping license fees,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “The revenue generated by the sale of trapping licenses only covers a fraction of the costs of even a single warden.” 

One commenter countered, "Using the logic that it doesn't make fiscal sense, then many government programs should be shut down [such as] 1) legal marijuana sales, [that] costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars 2) high speed rail [since] the federal government already spends billions of taxpayer dollars to prop up that industry." 

And, it isn't as if the ban is going to stop the need for Fish and Wildlife Officers, who will be charged with enforcing this very complicated law and investigating reports of illegal trapping. 

Assemblywoman Gonzalez Fletcher contends that individual trappers concentrate on limited geographical areas, which creates the risk that the targeted species will be depleted in that area. "Depleting those species could impair an area’s ecology and diminish opportunities for wildlife viewing," the bill says. Has she heard about Nutria? 

GIANT NUTRIA INVADE CALIFORNIA 

Nature is responding with swift vengeance to this plan to reduce the number of California Fish and Wildlife officers. 

Nutria -- large, web-footed rodents (mammals) that are native to South America -- were discovered in Merced County in 2017, wildlife officials say. Nutria can grow to 2½ feet in length and weigh 20 pounds and are recognized by their large orange incisors which can do irreparable damage to California’s already diminished wetlands by their destructive consumption of vegetation. 

But they don't stop there. They also burrow into the ground, potentially damaging irrigation canals and levees. This poses a risk to the state’s drinking water supply and could expose communities and farm fields to flooding, said Peter Tira, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Officials were immediately alarmed because of their quick and prolific reproductive cycle, their voracious appetite for vegetation and their ability to destroy underground infrastructure. 

"State biologists had trapped 386 nutria in California as of last week,” the LA Times reported in a February 8, 2019, article entitled, "You think rats at LA City Hall are bad?" "Most of the creatures — 316 — were found in Merced. However, experts have captured the animals in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Mariposa and Fresno counties."

Officials worry the semi-aquatic rodents, which have been found on the fringe of the San Joaquin River Delta, will ravage the area and harm infrastructure that sends water to San Joaquin Valley farms and urban areas. 

HISTORY OF NUTRIA IN CALIFORNIA 

Nutria were first brought to California in the late 1800s in an effort to establish a fur farm industry. When that business collapsed in the 1940s, some of the animals were released into the wild. State records indicate that nutria were present in the Central Valley and the southern coast of California.  

They were declared eradicated from the state by the 1970s — until the first one showed up in the beaver trap in spring 2017 in Merced County. Since then, the population has exploded. 

NUTRIA REPRODUCE "LIKE RABBITS" 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said Thursday it is trying to eradicate the rodents from the state because once established, Nutria could cause loss of wetlands, damage to agricultural crops and levees, dikes and roadbeds. 

Females can produce up to 13 young per litter, have a relatively short gestation period and can breed again within 48 hours of giving birth.  

A female nutria can give birth to more than 200 offspring within a year of reaching reproductive maturity. 

“Almost every female we’ve caught has been pregnant. They’re incredibly prolific, which is why we have to get on it quickly,” Tira said. 

DISEASES AND IMPACT ON ENVIRONMENT 

Nutria can consume up to 25% of their body weight in above- and below-ground vegetation each day, but they waste and destroy up to 10 times as much, causing extensive damage to the native plant community and soil structure, as well as significant losses to nearby agricultural crops, states the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife site. The destructive feeding habits of nutria threaten populations of rare, threatened, or endangered species that rely on critical wetland habitats. 

Nutria also serve as hosts for tuberculosis and septicemia, which are threats to humans, livestock, and pets. Additionally, nutria carry tapeworms, a nematode that causes a rash known as “nutria itch”, and blood and liver flukes, which can contaminate swimming areas and drinking water supplies. 

CA DEPT. OF FISH AND WILDLIFE HAS A PLAN - WHICH HAS A COST 

The Nutria population is growing faster in the Central Valley than California Department of Fish and Wildlife can currently combat, officials said, in large part because of their reproductive cycles. The Department is also hampered by a lack of full-time staff. 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has asked the state Legislature to appropriate $1.9 million for the 2019-20 fiscal year to pay for a dedicated team of 10 scientists, analysts and other experts to track and eradicate Nutria. 

And, planning ahead for sustainability, the agency has also asked for $1.6 million in subsequent years to fund the program. 

“They’re a threat to our multibillion-dollar agricultural economy, and they’re a public safety threat,” he added. “If they get entrenched in the delta, they pose a huge threat to our water. It would be hard to get them out of there, and it would have consequences for the whole state.” 

"Trapping nutria is a meticulous process that involves sending biologists to survey landscapes for scat or other signs of the rodents and setting up cameras to confirm their presence. If nutria are spotted, trappers nab the animals, which eventually are euthanized. When nutria show up on private property, state officials have to negotiate with property owners for access to corral them." 

“We believe we’ve caught the infestation early enough that we can remove them from California, but it’s not going to be quick,” Tira said. “It’s going to take a few years, for sure.”

“Based on what is known about nutria and their current reproductive rate and distribution, without immediate action, Nutria will rapidly expand their numbers and geographic presence and cause extensive damage to wetlands, riparian habitat, restoration projects, levees, water conveyance and flood-protection infrastructure, and agriculture,” the Department of Fish and Wildlife wrote in a proposal to the Legislature. 

It is not clear when — or if — the Legislature will consider the proposal, the LA Times [[[  https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-nutria-invasion-20190212-story.html ]]] reports. 

IS THIS THE TIME FOR A TRAPPING BAN? 

With this emergency situation in Northern California and potential threat to the entire state, is this the time for a trapping ban and major changes to existing law? It is possible that contract trappers may need to be brought in quickly (not in the midst of the uncertainty of law overhaul) to assist in stopping the destruction of California's wetlands, waterways and more? 

Does San Diego Assemblywoman Gonzales Fletcher even know about the Nutria issue? 

If the CA State Legislature is not planning to immediately consider the Department of Fish and Wildlife proposal, should it be voting on AB 273?

 

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of Los Angeles employee and a contributor to CityWatch LA.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.