ALBANY, N.Y.––The New York Department of Environmental Conservation on February 24, 2014 backed away from a plan to kill every mute swan in New York state.
The NY/DEC proposed to kill all 2,200 mute swans in the state by 2025, by a combination of methods that could include shooting, gassing, decapitation, and egg addling.
A two-week public comment period brought the NY/DEC “1,500 individual comments, more than 16,000 form-letter emails and 25,000 signatures on various petitions,” reported Rachel Shapiro of the Long Island Times Beacon Record. “The department will revise the plan and will have another public comment period on the revised draft, probably in early spring, according to an email from Patricia Riexinger, director of the Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources for the DEC.”
The NY/DEC hopes to exterminate mute swan colonies on Long Island, in the lower Hudson Valley, and along Lake Ontario, in delayed compliance with a 2003 mute swan population suppression scheme adopted by the Atlantic Flyway Council. An umbrella for state wildlife agencies, the Atlantic Flyway Council called upon New York to have cut the state mute swan count to 500 by 2013.
Maryland meanwhile culled a mute swan population estimated at almost 4,000 in 1999 to just 200 as of 2010. Michigan, killing about 6,000 mute swans in recent years, has committed to reducing a population of about 15,500 to fewer than 2,000 by 2030. Other states pursuing mute swan eradication include Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Ohio.
State wildlife agencies, the National Audubon Society, and the American Bird Conservancy have pursued eradication of mute swans and non-migratory Canada geese for more than 30 years, but were frequently thwarted by lawsuits brought by animal advocates under provisions of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In 2004, however, Congress amended the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to remove protection of mute swans, non-migratory Canada geese, and a long list of other birds deemed to be “non-native.”
Seeking to stop the NY/DEC proposal to cull mute swans, New York state senator Tony Avella on February 10, 2014 introduced legislation to delay the action for at least two years.
“In addition,” Avella said, “my bill requires the NY/DEC to illustrate the necessity of eradicating this non-native species by demonstrating the actual damage to the environment or other species caused by mute swans.”
New School professor of anthropology Hugh Raffles argued in a New York Times op-ed essay that the ecological effects of mute swans are nearly nil. “If the birds have an appetite for subaquatic vegetation,” Raffles wrote, “this may have local effects, but as they compose about half of 1% of New York’s more than 400,000 waterfowl, the impact on the state’s ecosystems is minor. And if, as the state claims but has difficulty demonstrating, mute swans really displace New York’s native birds, there should be a debate about the criteria used to value one species over another.
“The state’s management plan is based on a study that produced some markedly inconclusive science,” Raffles continued. “The study authors base their assumptions on programs to control growing numbers of mute swans in Michigan and Chesapeake Bay, yet as the report itself shows, the birds’ populations in New York state are relatively small and currently either steady or in decline.”
Friends of Animals asked New York governor Andrew Cuomo to recognize the week beginning on March 10, 2014 as “Swan Appreciation Week.”
“My professional opinion is that these public disputes about mute swans are overblown and unnecessary,” said ornithologist Donald S. Heintzelman, noted for 60 years of studying hawk migration at Bake Oven Knob in Pennsylvania. “These birds do not cause catastrophic damage, although most state wildlife agencies have engrained in their official mindsets the notion that mute swans should be destroyed merely because they are non-native species that might compete with native tundra swans and more rarely trumpeter swans. In fact, tundra swans very rarely are seen in New York State,” Heintzelman said. “Certainly, mute swans are not pushing out New York’s small population of trumpeter swans. Arguments that mute swans are aggressive, and consume large amounts of submerged aquatic vegetation, are greatly overblown—and represent bad science.”
Among Heintzelman’s books are a Canada Goose Habitat Modification Manual published by Friends of Animals in 2005.
New York state senator George Latimer on February 20, 2014 introduced a bill parallel to the Avella bill on behalf of mute swans which would require the NY/DEC to hold public hearings before issuing permits to cull Canada geese and wild turkeys. The NY/DEC would have to explain the perceived need for lethal action. Latimer cited the 2012 cull of 470 geese who formerly inhabited the Sprain Lake Golf Course in Westchester County, and the 2013 cull of 80 turkeys who formerly lived near a Staten Island psychiatric hospital.
Lauding public outrage on behalf of mute swans, non-migratory Canada geese, and wild turkeys, Farm Sanctuary senior policy director Bruce Friedrich urged that concern not be limited to “the birds we see in parks. Let’s also take a stand,” Friedrich said, “against horrid mistreatment of the birds who are killed behind the cold walls of our nation’s slaughterhouses and wind up on most Americans’ dinner plates.”