- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003


   An international animal rights group is offering up to $1,000 for video footage of Maryland wildlife agents shooting mute swans, the majestic but invasive bird being targeted for ravaging the Chesapeake Bay.
   “We are going to get [the footage] to the networks, to the TV stations, and put it on our Web site,” said Bill Dollinger, director of the Washington office of Friends of Animals.
   Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based international animal advocacy group with at least 1,000 members in Maryland, is convinced that videotaped killings will help put an end to the swan-reduction program.
   “We think a picture is worth a thousand words,” he said.
   Mr. Dollinger said numerous broadcast companies already have expressed interest in airing such footage.
   But nobody has tried to collect the $1,000 yet, most likely because the culling that began just two weeks ago has been confined to remote Bay wetlands, where the average videographer is unlikely to tread, he said.
   State wildlife officials already have killed about 100 of the swans. The mute swans, originally from China, were introduced along the Atlantic coast as early as the late 1800s. They are blamed for tearing up the Bay ecosystem and endangering native animals, such as the state’s indigenous tundra swans.
   Mute swans, which can weigh up to 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 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 to sea horses to domestic waterfowl.
   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 Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has a federal permit to kill 1,500 of Maryland’s roughly 3,600 mute swans this year. The department hopes to kill another 1,500 next year, then evaluate the effect of the remaining 600 birds.
   The complete elimination of the mute swan from Maryland may be the next step, wildlife officials said.
   Tips about where rangers are killing swans have flooded in since the Friends of Animals urged Marylanders last week to join their Swan-Watch Network, the group said.
   The group also is circulating a petition among bayside property owners to deny DNR officers access to their land to kill the birds, Mr. Dollinger said.
   Wildlife officials said they are unconcerned about petitions, noting that the plan has the backing of federal authorities and environmental groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Ducks Unlimited and American Bird Conservancy.
   Mr. Dollinger said wildlife officials were attempting to shroud the program in secrecy.
   “This idea that it needs to be hidden from public view is condescending, and it is kind of arrogant,” he said. “I think DNR should shoot their own video to publicize their program. We would be glad to give them the $1,000 for their videotape.”
   Jonathan McKnight, DNR associate director for habitat conservation, said the department isn’t hiding the program or misleading the public about its aims.
   “You can use the K-word. You can say ‘kill.’ That is what we are doing. I’m not running away from it,” Mr. McKnight said. “We are not ashamed of what we are doing, though we do it with regret.
   “We openly kill off birds using guns or lethal injections, methods approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association,” Mr. McKnight said, adding that publicity surrounding the program already has spurred a barrage of angry phone calls.
   “I’ve been getting calls, and I’ve been called some names,” he said. “I want people to know that we are using humane ways, and we don’t enjoy doing it.”
   Mr. McKnight accused Friends of Animals and like-minded groups of trying to undermine an effective wildlife-management strategy by appealing to peoples’ emotions. “[Doing] something inflammatory would serve their purpose better than ours,” he said.
   “I don’t see how any video is going to be inflammatory,” Mr. Dollinger said. “They are going to do what they are going to do. At some point, you have to get down to the emotional level.”
   

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