- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Animal rights activists filed a federal lawsuit yesterday to stop Maryland from killing its mute swans, majestic but invasive birds targeted for ravaging the Chesapeake Bay.

The suit, filed in federal court in the District, was brought by animal rights groups Save Maryland Swans and Friends of Animals against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and says the service improperly issued a permit for the state to kill 1,500 mute swans this year.

The litigation faults Fish and Wildlife for not conducting an environmental impact study and not soliciting public input before issuing the permit, as well as other technical issues related to the permit process. It demands that the service revoke the permit and restore the protected status of Maryland’s roughly 3,600 mute swans.

The state’s wildlife officials blame the exotic swans, originally from China but introduced throughout the world since the 1800s, for tearing up the Bay’s ecosystem and endangering indigenous wildlife, such as the state’s native tundra swan.

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. But by 1999, the population exceeded 3,000, and conflicts with humans and the habitat ensued.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) plans to kill nearly all the birds in the next two years. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has signed off on the plan, saying the swan-reduction program was based on science, not politics.

“We don’t feel that they justified that,” said Eastern Shore resident Patrick Hornberger, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit and a founding member of Save Maryland Swans, a group of about five people dedicated to stopping the swan-reduction program.

“We feel the bird has become the scapegoat for the ills of the Chesapeake Bay,” Mr. Hornberger told The Washington Times yesterday. “We see them as waterborne pets.”

For the lawsuit, the group teamed up with Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based international animal advocacy group with at least 1,000 members in Maryland.

Friends of Animals also has offered up to $1,000 for videotaped footage of DNR agents killing the birds. The group plans to distribute the tape to TV stations to stir public opposition to the swan killing.

There have been no takers for the $1,000 offer.

Mute swans — big, white birds that can weigh up to 50 pounds — have overrun wetlands and waterfront property of the Bay. These nonnative birds are fiercely territorial and have become a public nuisance, attacking fishermen in boats and passers-by on shore who approach their nests.

What’s worse, wildlife officials say, is the flock’s appetite for 10.5 million pounds of Bay grass a year. Their feasting disrupts the Bay’s food chain and affects animals from young fish and sea horses to domestic waterfowl, such as the tundra swan.

State wildlife officials have killed about 100 of the swans. They plan to kill 1,500 this year and apply for another permit next year to kill 1,500 more.

A study of the environmental impact of the remaining 600 birds will decide their fate, but wildlife officials say the complete elimination of the mute swan from Maryland might be necessary.

Jonathan McKnight, DNR associate director for habitat conservation, declined to comment on the merits of the lawsuit, saying it was a matter between the animal rights activists and the federal government. But, he said, the state remained committed to the program.

“I would not want to see it reversed,” Mr. McKnight said. “Ecologically, it is the right thing to do, and I hope we will be able to continue it.”

He said his office has not been inundated with calls from people outraged by the swan killing, something he had expected.

They’ve received a fair amount of mail, though, which has been evenly divided in support and opposition to the program.

“There are quite a few people out there who have been supportive, mostly waterfront property owners,” he said.

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