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A nutria in the wild. Would you like to see this animal on your plate at dinner?
updated 1/24/2012 12:49:59 PM ET 2012-01-24T17:49:59

Americans hunted many valuable and delicious animals such as the beaver, turkey and bison until they were wiped out in many areas. Yet, fur-bearing and edible invasive species now run rampant damaging native North American ecosystems.

Why haven't American hunters wiped out the nutria, Burmese python, feral hogs and other non-native outlaw species? It turns out many non-native species aren't valuable enough or are too hard to catch to easily root out.

Increased demand for invasive species products could overcome those difficulties, for example if more people develop a craving for nutritious meals made from nutria, the large aquatic rodent, or make Everglades python purses the next must-have accessory. But cultural and logistic hurdles remain.

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"The problem with the nutria is it looks like a giant rat, but it tastes like a giant rabbit," said Dave Linkhart, a 50-year veteran trapper and director of national and international affairs for the National Trappers Association in an interview with Discovery News from his camp in the backwoods of Louisiana.

Nutria pelts aren't valuable, only fetching about $3, but the animal can weigh up to 20 pounds and make a hearty meal.

"I ate nutria for lunch, I've got two more right in front of me. I am encouraging people to eat nutria, but there's cultural stigma you have to overcome," said Linkhart.

WATCH VIDEO: Learn how wildlife specialists trap nutria.

Cajun culture has made raccoon and other swamp critters into meals for centuries, but the nutria is a newcomer and hasn't made its way into the local gastronomic culture, said Linkhart. But the barriers to culinary acceptance are not insurmountable.

"They did overcome those stigmas with alligator. People didn't order alligator in restaurants, but now you see lots of place that have gator," said Linkhart.

Alligators are native to the American south, but another rapacious reptile now residing in Florida is an invader. Burmese pythons set up shop in Florida within only the last few decades.

The main difficulty for python hunters in Florida is that the snakes are masters of camouflage, Jenny Novak, wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told Discovery News. Although they regularly reach 12 feet long, they disappear into murky water and dense vegetation.

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Last year, Florida started an official python hunting season. From March 5 to April 12, hunters can shoot pythons with firearms, as long as they have a hunting license, a python permit and correct game tags.

Permits allow hunters to brave taking the snakes by hand all year long, but the reptiles must be immediately euthanized by humane means, Novak said.

Could hands-on python wrangling become the next extreme sport?

"Folks call from other states call and want make a fortune (in python skins), but that's just not feasible. ... There aren't pythons simply everywhere in the everglades. It can take one to two days to find one," said Novak.

Python skins can be sold, but Novak recommends against eating the meat. Research found some pythons in the Everglades contained high levels of mercury, she said.

Also dangerous to eat is the invasive feral hog, said Edmond Mouton, biology program manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

"Feral swine are riddled with diseases that can be detrimental to humans, like brucellosis, and a suite of diseases that affect wildlife," said Mouton.

The New York Times reported on a movement by foodies to put local invasives on the menu, but since even feral pork chops have a downside, the movement may have to watch what it eats.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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