Federal wildlife officials have cleared the way for Maryland to resume its campaign to shoot up to 1,500 mute swans this year, ruling that the birds do too much damage to their Chesapeake Bay habitat.
Over the next decade, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to eliminate 11,000 of the 14,000 swans that inhabit the East Coast, and it issued a finding that killing them is the "preferred alternative."
The agency's decision was incorporated in new regulations published in the Federal Register yesterday. The public is invited to comment until July 16, after which the rules are likely to be implemented. That would allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue shooting permits to Maryland and other states that have applied for them.
Critics of state shooting plans said the federal proposal will inspire increased opposition to the swan shooting, and possibly provoke more litigation to save the swans from slaughter.
"I think it's arrogance at its height," said Patrick Hornberger, a Talbot County landowner and a plaintiff in a U.S. District Court lawsuit seeking to block the shooting. Hornberger has also gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition drive to save the swans.
But federal wildlife officials said yesterday that hungry, aggressive birds have become such a nuisance that their numbers should be trimmed in all 17 states that make up the region known as the Atlantic Flyway.
Environmentalists say the birds, which are not native and are distinguished from other swan species by their bright orange beaks, have crowded out native species and decimated bay grasses critical to maintaining the estuary's health. Maryland's mute swan population is descended from a group imported from Asia to decorate an Eastern Shore estate.
"Tens of thousands of wetland acres have been impacted by those birds," said Paul Schmidt, the federal agency's assistant director for migratory birds and state programs.
He said the service plans to issue permits this summer to states hoping to reduce their mute swan populations.
The agency's 10-year goal is to trim the East Coast population from 14,000 to 3,000 and the national mute swan population from 21,400 to about 4,500 over 10 years.
New York, New Jersey and Virginia have also applied for permits to shoot some swans. But those states, along with others in the Midwest unaffected by proposed regulations, do not plan to shoot as many as Maryland officials do.
In the spring, the federal government issued a permit to Maryland allowing state wildlife biologists and technicians to shoot up to 1,500 of the state's 3,600 mutes.
About 100 birds were killed before wildlife activists and Eastern Shore bird lovers filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to challenge the permits.
The plaintiffs complained that the shooting plans violated the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which requires a lengthy environmental impact statement before a shooting campaign can begin.
Maryland voluntarily surrendered its permit in May after the first suit was filed.
Another federal suit, challenging the federal process used to approve federal permits, is pending in U.S. District Court in Washington and was unaffected by the decision announced yesterday.
Officials at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said yesterday that they hope to begin shooting birds again as early as Aug. 1. Michael Slattery, a DNR wildlife biologist who is overseeing the shooting effort, told reporters the agency is "extremely anxious" to begin eradicating swans before their numbers increase.
But they will face opposition. Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, said the group will continue to offer a $1,000 reward to anyone who videotapes state agents shooting a mute swan.
She complained that federal and state wildlife officials are responding to concerns from hunters in various states about swans crowding out ducks, geese and other game birds.
"Whether they've been imported or indigenous, they've found an ecological niche here, and you shouldn't disturb that," she said.