A last-minute addition to an omnibus federal spending bill has cleared the way for Maryland wildlife officials to resume killing mute swans that destroy Chesapeake Bay grasses.
The language, approved Tuesday night, removes an ambiguity in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that allowed a federal judge to halt a state plan to eradicate 525 adult swans last year. Those swans and as many as 94 other non-native species will no longer be protected by the act.
President Bush signed the bill into law yesterday.
"We are extremely relieved," said Jonathan McKnight, head of the invasive species program for the Department of Natural Resources. "Now we have a daunting task ahead of us."
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, slipped the language into the bill at the request of state officials and environmental groups.
They see the swans as beautiful nuisances that ruin local habitats and drive out other species. Outraged animal-rights groups have opposed the killings, arguing that the swans are scapegoats for the bay's problems.
McKnight said he expects biologists to begin culling 1,500 birds from an estimated population of 4,000 in the spring.
Opponents who fought the killings in the courts and in Annapolis hearing rooms called Gilchrest's maneuver "undemocratic and underhanded."
"It is subterfuge," said Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals. "They couldn't get it passed on its merits as a standalone bill, so they pushed it through the back door. By the time we found out, it was too late, there was nothing we could do about it."
Gilchrest defended the process, saying he worked with legislators in both houses from seven states.
"I was able to work with Democrats and environmental groups. Every environmental group known to reasonable people was in favor of this," he said. "If this had been brought to the floor as a [standalone] bill, I'm convinced it would have had at least 300 votes."
Today's mute swan population is descended from a dozen birds that a wealthy Eastern Shore landowner imported from Europe in the 1950s to decorate his estate. The birds took to their new surroundings and bred throughout the bay.
But the newcomers came at a price. Each adult can eat up to 8 pounds of underwater grasses daily -- eliminating critical vegetation that filters bay water and controls erosion. The birds also squeeze out native waterfowl, bay experts say.
The issue divided environmental and animal rights groups, pitting the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy and the American Bird Conservancy against the Fund for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and the Bluewater Network.
Opponents complained that the state blamed the swans rather than dealing with development and agricultural runoff issues around the bay.
They also argued that the swans are protected under four international migratory treaties that make no distinction between "native" and "non-native" species because the birds spend winters and summers on different continents.
"Congress is substituting its judgment for the executive branch, which negotiated these treaties," Markarian said of the change exempting the swans and other non-native species from protection. "This has really split environmental groups down the middle. It shows there's no consensus on what non-native is."
But John Bianchi, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society, said the question of native and non-native becomes irrelevant when the species is introduced by man. He said it's important to act quickly to control invasive animals before they destroy habitat and eliminate native species.
Early last year, DNR proposed killing 525 mute swans as a starting point, and Maryland was one of several Eastern states that received permits to do so from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Eastern Shore residents and animal-rights groups sued in U.S. District Court in Washington to stop the plan. In September last year, they got an injunction from Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, who indicated he was likely to rule in favor of the plaintiffs in a trial. After that, the Fish and Wildlife Service rescinded the permits.
DNR's McKnight said the birds will be shot or euthanized. In addition, biologists will addle the eggs in more than 350 nests, which means shaking the eggs to scramble the embryos. They will also coat the shells with vegetable oil, which blocks oxygen.