- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

ANNAPOLIS Maryland wildlife officials are ready to start killing off the state's mute swans, majestic but invasive birds they blame for trashing the Chesapeake Bay.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he backs a plan to cut the state's mute swan population from more than 4,000 birds to about 500, despite a backlash from animal rights activists.
Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said it is time for science, not politics, to drive policy at the Department of Natural Resources.
Mute swans, large white swans that can weigh as much as 50 pounds, have overrun wetlands and waterfront property of the Chesapeake Bay. These non-native birds are fiercely territorial and have created a public nuisance, attacking fishermen in boats and passersby on shore who approach their nests.
But what's worse, wildlife officials say, is the flock's appetite for 10.5 million pounds of bay grass a year, a diet that threatens the habitat of native birds and fish.
"It's one of the most aggressive waterfowl in the world. … In some cases it will attack people," DNR wildlife director Paul A. Peditto told the governor at a briefing yesterday.
"The bad news is this critter doesn't look like a snakehead," he said, referring to the Asian "Frankenfish," a non-native fish that wildlife officials had to eradicate from a Crofton pond last year.
Mr. Peditto said the swan "is an attractive animal that has brought a lot of attention to Maryland, exclusively for its charisma."
He told the governor that the mute swan would be the next environmental controversy the administration must weather.
Mr. Ehrlich later said he is prepared for the "difficult and sometimes controversial" decisions involving wildlife policy. He said he supports the department's response to the problem and is particularly alarmed by the amount of bay grass, or submerged aquatic vegetation, consumed by the mute swans.
"What really struck me was that submerged vegetation," he said. "That's the lifeblood of the Chesapeake Bay."
Maryland's mute swan population is blamed on five captive birds that escaped along the Miles River in Talbot County in 1962. Their numbers grew steadily for two decades with little consequence for the environment or Eastern Shore residents.
In the late 1980s, the mute swan population exploded, rising from fewer than 500 birds to about 4,000 by 1999. Conflicts with humans and the habitat ensued.
The plan to reduce the number of mute swans includes destroying their eggs and relocating some birds, but most of the reduction would be through euthanasia. The department will also look for federal and state regulatory relief to make it easier for watermen or annoyed property owners to legally shoot the swans.
There would not be a mute swan hunting season, wildlife officials said.
Environmentalist groups, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Ducks Unlimited, have endorsed the plan, but animal rights groups are planning a public relations blitz to stop it.
"It's a scheme to make them a game bird," said Priscilla Feral, president of the Connecticut-based Friends of Animals, an international animal advocacy association.
"They have been trying to concoct an excuse to kill the birds that the public will buy, but I'm not buying it."
She said the swans are being used as scapegoats for the Bay's degradation when the real culprit is pollution. She said runoff from farms, industry and housing developments have killed more Bay vegetation than the birds have.
Miss Feral plans to enlist the about 1,000 Maryland members of her group to stir up opposition to the plan and put the heat on Mr. Ehrlich.
"If the only thing standing between a gun and a mute swan is the governor, then I guess there will have to be appeals to the governor," Miss Feral said.
The DNR plans an extensive and targeted education campaign of its own to teach the public the difference between the exotic mute swan and the native tundra swans, as well as explain the adverse environmental effects of the rapidly growing mute swan population.
The plan calls for the birds to be removed from swan-free areas, which would include practically all of the mute swans' nesting grounds. Wildlife officials would attempt to scare off the birds and then use lethal removal methods in areas designated endangered wetlands, wetlands in federal and state wildlife refuges, state parks and nesting areas of other birds.
"Lethal methods to remove swans will include shooting, or capture and euthanasia. Small numbers of swans may be captured and placed in permitted waterfowl collections. However, mute swans will not be relocated to other wetland habitats in Maryland," according to the plan.
Swans killed by the department could be donated to public museums, scientific institutions and zoos, or to charities to feed people.

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