Serious threat posed by swans demands serious response

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IT IS AN UNFORTUNATE fact of life that there are organizations and people who prey upon the good intentions of others in order to make a buck. That's what's behind the opposition of a small band of wacky fringe groups out to stop efforts to reduce the mute swan population in the Chesapeake Bay.

Here are the facts.

Three major objectives of the state Department of Natural Resources are critical to restoring the health of the bay: restoring the oyster population to filter the bay, reducing nutrient runoff that contributes to bay pollution, and increasing bay grasses.

Bay grasses are essential to a healthy bay. They help prevent erosion by reducing wave action and also provide a nursery and a habitat for all kinds of sea creatures, from crabs to terrapins to finfish. Perhaps most important, they introduce lifesaving oxygen into the bay.

In addition to excess nutrients, bay grasses have another enemy - the mute swan. They were newcomers to the bay when five of them escaped in 1962 from a private residence. Today, there are about 3,600. These swans double their population every four years, and in a decade, if nothing had been done, there would be 20,000. DNR began reducing the number of swans earlier this year, but this was put on hold by a lawsuit, with a ruling expected at any time.

Here's the problem: Each swan eats about 3,000 pounds of bay grass each year. This year, swans will eat more than 5,000 tons of bay grass. If swift action is not taken, by the end of the decade they will eat nearly 30,000 tons in a year.

The mute swan is also one of the world's most aggressive species of waterfowl. In Maryland, mute swans intimidate waterfront property owners, and have even attacked people who venture too close to them. They have driven out native birds, including threatened and endangered species, and killed their chicks.

DNR is seeking authorization from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to kill several thousand invasive mute swans that are contributing to the destruction of the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay. We agree that it is very unfortunate that we must undertake this exercise, but for us to fail in actively reducing the mute swan population, knowing that by doing so could be a fatal blow to restoring the bay, would be an abdication of our responsibility as natural resources professionals, and a betrayal of the public trust.

Extremists opposing us question the science behind the decision.

For starters, DNR is not a cowboy riding alone in this exercise. We are joined by mainstream conservation groups that understand the need to reduce the exploding mute swan population. That's why the National Audubon Society, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Severn River Association, the South River Federation, the American Bird Conservancy and many others have endorsed our actions.

Second, there have been numerous scientific studies supporting the DNR plan. Visit DNR's Web site at http://www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/msfi naltoc.html and scan the bibliographies related to mute swan content on the site. The scientific evidence in support of our plan is impressive.

Finally, our opponents say that because there are other causes for the decline of bay grasses, we are making mute swans into scapegoats. Sure, excess nutrients in the bay lead to the eradication of bay grasses, and that is one of the reasons nutrient reduction is one of the three priorities of DNR. Wouldn't a reasonable person conclude that it would be foolish to invest public funds to restore these grasses only to continue to feed an ever-expanding swan population?

One of the more misguided groups opposing us on this issue is the Fund for Animals. It has gone so far as to accuse DNR staff of clandestinely killing mute swans (a violation of federal law) in uniforms and boats that had been stripped of the DNR insignia. It is common knowledge that groups such as this resort to deception, half-truths and outright lies in order to get publicity and raise money for their organizations. It is too bad that the news media don't hold them to the same standards they do for government entities.

If there were a viable alternative to killing mute swans, we would take it. We cannot capture and sterilize all of the mute swans. We cannot send them somewhere else because it is against the law to do so, and because they are overpopulating and damaging every area outside of Asia where they become established.

We received high praise for the elimination of the snakehead fish from a pond in Crofton last year because of its potential to harm the ecosystem. Yet because the mute swan is more aesthetically pleasing than a fish, there is reluctance to rid ourselves of a creature that has done immensely more damage. We owe it to future generations of Marylanders to do what is demanded of us - get rid of the swans and save the bay before it is too late.

Mike Slattery is assistant secretary for resource management at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. He lives in Severna Park.

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