RICHMOND, AUG. 31 -- Tundra swans visiting Virginia this autumn would do well to keep their eyes open and their heads low.
In one of the most hotly debated issues to come before it in recent years, the board of the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries agreed today to allow the shooting of up to 600 of the graceful white waterfowl who visit the state each fall during annual migrations from Canada.
The board's 9-to-1 vote followed an emotional public hearing in which animal rights activists and conservationists clashed with hunters and the staff of the game department.
Also today, the board unanimously approved what staff members described as a compromise aimed at settling a long-standing battle over duck hunting along the Potomac shore in southern Alexandria and a part of Fairfax County.
Civic groups and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors had been pushing for a ban on hunting along the George Washington Memorial Parkway near the Belle Haven Marina and Dyke Marsh. Instead, the board agreed to ban all shooting in part of the area, and allow hunting from a limited number of floating duck blinds elsewhere.
As pollution has ebbed in the Potomac in recent years and waterfowl have increased, hunting has made a resurgence -- to the vexation of nearby residents, joggers and bicyclists.
"Nobody's getting a full loaf" under the compromise, said Jerry Sims, a game department biologist, who said he hoped that the deal would nonetheless bring "peace on the Potomac."
But it was the fate of the swans that animated most of the 100 or so people who flocked to a public hearing here. One part of the debate centered on whether scientific evidence shows -- as the game department maintains -- that the state's swan population has risen so high that farm crops, oyster beds and the habitats of other waterfowl are being harmed.
But much of the testimony was more emotional than scientific.
"How can we kill these guests who stop here so trustingly for food and a place to rest?" asked Susan Wiedman, of the group Voices for Animals.
To applause from the crowd, Wiedman declared: "People feel attracted and drawn to swans because of their gentle and elegant nature. A swan is a symbol of peace, an icon of beauty."
There was equal applause when hunters' rights advocate James A. Remington, a former director of the game department, warned that the swan protectionists were merely "anti-hunting activists" who want to stop all sport shooting.
"Which 'noble and graceful' animal will they want to save next year?" Remington asked.
Jim McInteer, an official of the Virginia Wildlife Federation, said swan protectors were trying to turn a conservation issue into an "ugly versus beauty" debate, and urged the board to "bite the bullet" and approve limited swan hunting.
The board did just that. Some members said they approved the hunting because of the staff analysis that Virginia's swan population -- estimated at about 6,000 during its fall peak -- can withstand limited hunting easily, and because the swan hunt had produced little controversy the last two years.
The game department will now issue 600 medallions allowing the holders to shoot one bird each during a 90-day season that starts Nov. 3.
Swan hunting will be allowed in areas south of Prince William County and east of Interstate 95.