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Cinema Bayville

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Creatures and Critters

The Root of it All

Narrator: To the casual observer, this corner of Dorchester County appears serene, even picturesque. But in nature, as in art, looks can deceive.

Man: This whole area that you see, this open water here, looks like a beautiful lake, in actuality it was once healthy marsh.

Narrator: Steve Kendrot is a biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Steve: And we're standing in the Blackwater River which was, at one point, just a narrow, 50-meter wide tidal gut essentially that wound through this whole marsh complex, or marsh ecosystem. And now, much of that marsh has been lost. You can see, it's probably close to a quarter-mile wide here.

Narrator:  What happened? The marsh was destroyed by an animal that's not even native to Maryland. These critters, called nutria, are an invasive species.

Steve: Nutria are an aquatic rodent from South America that were brought to the United States back in the early part of the 1900s, through the 1930's and '40s, in order to try to establish a fur market. Eventually, animals either escaped from the farms that they were housed in or were released intentionally.

Narrator: The root of the problem, so to speak, is nutrias' eating habits.

Steve: The marsh is essentially a floating mat of vegetation on top of an almost a liquid, organic soil. What nutria do is they come and feed in areas, they cut through that vegetation, almost like a saw. And you can see that those little chunks become really vulnerable to sinking and that's exactly what you see happening here. And I could stick my foot down there and, you know, it's a good two to three feet deep there. Essentially the marsh is sinking. It's disappearing and being converted to open water.

Narrator: Disappearing, in fact, at a catastrophic rate.

Steve: Nutria were introduced in the late 1930s, early 1940s and this aerial photograph was taken in 1938 prior to the introduction of nutria to this ecosystem. We flash forward to 1989, you can see that virtually all of that marsh habitat has been destroyed by nutria. 1938 to 1989. About 8,000 acres have been destroyed at Blackwater Refuge alone. And if we don't do something about the problem now, the marsh that remains will be lost as well.

And that marsh is vital for so many species of fish and wildlife. I don't think anybody wants to see our great blue herons disappear, or blue crabs or striped bass. And all those animals depend on this marsh at one point or another in their life cycle. So if we do nothing about the nutria, we lose our marsh and we lose all the species that are associated with it.


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