- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

HAGERSTOWN, Md. For nearly 80 years, mute swans have graced the City Park lake, their curved necks and arched wings epitomizing for many the serene beauty of the spot in the center of this industrial railroad town.
When the last pair of swans died earlier this year, tradition dictated they be replaced. Donors contributed $4,500 more than enough to buy new birds from a Midwestern breeder at $1,000 a pair.
State regulators are balking, though, at approving the city's acquisition of an aggressive, exotic species that has overgrazed underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay, reducing crab and fish habitat. Wildlife managers want the city to substitute tundra swans smaller, less destructive, native birds with straighter necks and a lower profile.
Mayor William M. Breichner and the City Council won't hear of it.
"The mutes are a much more attractive bird and are the type we have had in that park, probably since the park began," Mr. Breichner said.
They have been pictured on postcards and cast in aluminum for Christmas ornaments. Mute swans glide across the lake in a painting in Mr. Breichner's office.
"Everything we have that depicts City Park with the swans are the mutes," he said.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has statutory authority to regulate possession and transportation of mute swans as a game species in the state. The agency apparently gets the final word in this dispute, and it is speaking firmly.
"We are not going to be supportive of bringing this animal into Maryland," said Paul Peditto, director of the agency's Wildlife and Heritage Division.
He left open a possibility of allowing Hagerstown to obtain mute swans from elsewhere in the state, but said he wants DNR representatives to talk with city officials first so they can better understand each other.
Wild mute swans are a problem on the Eastern Shore, where a population of about 4,000 consumes 9 million pounds of underwater vegetation annually, according to Larry Hindman, the DNR's waterfowl-project leader.
They have driven other birds, including black skimmers, out of Maryland nesting sites and killed mallard ducklings and Canada goose goslings, according to an essay by Mr. Hindman on the DNR's Web site.
Mutes also have shown aggressive behavior toward the milder-mannered migratory tundra swans that winter in Maryland, driving them from protected coves and feeding areas, Mr. Hindman said.
"In the absence of active control measures, it is expected that the number of feral mute swans in Maryland will continue to increase. Eventually, this species could occur in larger numbers throughout the Chesapeake Bay regions and cause additional ecological harm and problems for humans," Mr. Hindman said.
The state and federal governments have taken steps to control the mutes, even trapping and killing them. The DNR is nearing completion of a management plan that would cut the mute swan population to a more tolerable level.
Mr. Breichner pointed out that the mutes have not multiplied in Hagerstown. The city proposes acquiring swans of just one sex so they can't reproduce, and removing some wing feathers so they can't leave the park.
Mr. Peditto acknowledged there is little likelihood of two or four or six swans having a significant ecological effect in Hagerstown. He is concerned, though, that approving the mutes would send the wrong message.
Down at the park, most of those enjoying the mild temperatures and sunshine recently said they wanted mute swans.
"I think the swans represent, like, everything that Hagerstown has," said Derek Meyers, 17. "Keep tradition."
His friend, Jessica Banzhoff, 19, agreed: "They shouldn't change it. Everything changes enough already as it is."

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