Md. Committee Backs Mute Swan Eradication

A report calls mute swans a
A report calls mute swans a "formidable threat" to native wildlife species. Dissenters say damage by swans is minimal compared with that by humans. (2000 Photo By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 2009

Maryland's majestic white mute swans have dwindled in number from 4,000 to just a few hundred, and a sharply divided state panel recommended yesterday that the invasive species be eliminated to preserve wetlands and endangered native birds.

"The mute swan is an environmental hazard to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem," according to recommendations sent to John R. Griffin, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. "The mute swan is one of the world's most aggressive species of waterfowl."

The report, from an advisory committee appointed by Griffin, said that the mute swans pose a "formidable threat" to native wildlife species and "feed aggressively" on fragile submerged grasses and that efforts to kill the remaining swans, estimated to number 500, should continue.

"Ending lethal control would lead to rapid population growth that would ultimately mean that more mute swans would have to be killed to maintain a population level of 500 swans," the report said. "We believe that it is very important for this population-reduction effort to continue to reduce the mute swan population to as low a level as can be achieved."

"Conservationists are not in favor of protecting a beautiful but dangerous invasive waterfowl," Jonathan A. McKnight, the report's author, said in an interview. McKnight is the DNR's associate director for habitat conservation.

The panel that was convened to review the eradication program descended into acrimony between environmentalists and animal rights advocates.

The animal rights advocates defended the animals as an "engaging and captivating part of the Chesapeake Bay."

"The callous and brutal treatment that these magnificent swans receive at the hands of the Maryland DNR is simply appalling," the Humane Society of the United States said in a letter to Griffin. The organization said the birds are shot or their necks are broken by DNR employees.

The letter accompanied a dissenting report by panel members John W. Grandy of the Humane Society and E. Joseph Lamp of the Maryland Wildlife Advisory Commission.

Mute swans are native to Asia and Europe, and the first five imported to Maryland arrived in 1962 as "lawn ornaments" at a Talbot County estate, McKnight said. The population expanded rapidly from those three males and two females, reaching about 4,000 by the year 2000.

The swans, which can stand as tall as four feet and weigh close to 30 pounds, soon lived in tidal waters throughout the state, with the greatest numbers along the central and lower Eastern Shore around the Choptank River.

They have drawn the ire of conservationists on two counts: They are big birds that trample and usurp the habitat of endangered native birds, and they uproot the shallow-water grasses where young crabs and fish find refuge until they are large enough to fend for themselves in open water.

"They cause extreme degradation to underwater grasses," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "If we leave them unchecked, they will come back, and we'll have a serious problem."

Coble said the foundation favors nonlethal controls, primarily coating eggs in the nest with oil that prevents them from hatching, but backs the state program to kill the birds as a last resort.

In their dissent, Grandy and Lamp said damage by the swans is minimal when compared with that of humans and does not warrant lethal measures.

"The bay does not need fewer swans," they wrote, asking Griffin to produce proof that reducing the swan population has preserved bay grasses.

McKnight, who chaired the advisory panel and wrote the majority report, said each bird consumes an average of eight pounds of bay grass a day.

"What's more, we're losing habitat for native endangered species," said McKnight, an endangered-species expert. "As far as I'm concerned, two mute swans on the habitat of a black skimmer colony is two birds too many."

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