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Wildlife of the Week: The Sika Deer and The Nutria

Wildlife of the Week returns to Penn Press Log with a question. Since wild animals have no use for citizenship status and state issued drivers licenses, how do non-native species qualify for inclusion in a regional wildlife reference such as John Rappole’s Wildlife of the Mid-Atlantic?

Sika_deer400Rappole chose to include the sika deer (Cervus nippon), a species with Asian origins, in his forthcoming book because it maintains self-sustaining breeding populations in the region. This tiny relative of the elk was introduced to the North American wild in the early 20th Century when a Maryland resident released a few captive deer onto Chesapeake Bay’s James and Assateague Islands. According to Maryland’s Wildlife and Heritage Service, the sika provides "excellent flavored venison," so it’s popular among hunters. However, concerned National Park Service officials are monitoring the sika deer’s impact on native plants and white-tail deer. "[Park] Visitors and hunters love sika deer. But they are an exotic species that may be upsetting the ecosystem," says researcher Duane Diefenbach.

In contrast to the delicious but possibly detrimental sika deer, the nutria (Myocastor coypus) is a decidedly unwelcome newcomer. Imported from South America in the 1930s and 40s to boost local
fur industries, the nutria escaped into the wilds of Louisiana and Maryland where it proceeded
to spread like kudzu. With a voracious appetite for wetland plants, a year-round breeding season, and no natural predators or human culinary interest to stop it, these aquatic rodents moved well beyond a self-sustaining breeding population to become a force of marsh destruction.  In Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the nutria’s orange teeth chewed through acres of vegetation, exposing the  mud below to  the rising erosive waters of the Chesapeake Bay and contributing to a near 8,000 acre loss of  land. Blackwater Refuge managed to remove the nutria after an  intensive two year hunting campaign that ended in 2004. Whether a joint effort of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and NOAA’s National Ocean Service
can restore Blackwater’s eroded marshland remains to be seen.