Volume XI, Issue 19 ~ May 8-14, 2003

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Burton on the Bay | Chesapeake Outdoors | Sky Watch | Tidelog
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Chesapeake Outdoors by C. D. Dollar

Death Sentence for Mute Swans Not an Easy Decision

Let’s get some indisputable facts about mute swans straight from the get-go.

Mute swans didn’t create this threat to the Bay’s now fragile system. People did decades ago when five captive birds escaped into the wild. Today, they number 3,600 swans.

Mute swans cannot be held accountable for their nature They protect their nests and harass and sometimes kill other birds, including black ducks and some colonial nesting birds. Mute swans drove off the last remaining colony of black skimmers from Maryland.

Left unchecked, the mute swan population could grow to 20,000 birds by 2010; this surge would further reduce the Bay’s struggling underwater grass beds. It’s estimated that mute swans consume as much as one million pounds of underwater grasses annually.

In April, the Department of Natural Resources announced it would implement the lethal component of its management strategy to control the mute swan population by killing approximately 1,500 mute swans. Since then, the death sentence has been a topic of debate.

Most people I’ve talked with see this action as unfortunate but necessary. To get another perspective, I called Patrick Hornberger, the founder of the newly created organization Save Maryland Swans.

Hornberger’s admirable and sincere conviction that swans ought to be left alone led him to spearhead petition efforts asking Gov. Robert Erhlich to stop the department from killing the mutes. He said his fledgling group has fewer than 100 members, and that sparse support is the main reason Hornberger formed an “alliance of necessity” with the national animal rights group, Friends of Animals.

On that group’s web site, Hornberger is listed as Maryland advisor, a title he said he obtained only in recent weeks. Friends of Animals is offering a $1,000 bounty “for quality videotaped footage of the harassment or killing of Mute Swans by DNR bureaucrats.” Hornberger, and Friends of Animals, dismiss DNR’s science as bunk.

Yet as alternatives they offer little but emotionally charged rhetoric and erroneous jargon. They claim that “the scape-goating of Mute Swans would be laughable if it were not for the deadly intentions of state wildlife bureaucrats, who simply want to provide hunters with another trophy bird.” This wanton misrepresentation of the facts is insulting to state biologists tasked with this unpleasant duty. One of my biologist friends, no friend of the mutes, said it was a very hard thing to do and offered a prayer for the creatures they killed.

If Friends of Animals and its ilk were truly interested in the welfare of mutes, rather than sensationalism to garner support, they’d have done something proactive years ago. When I asked Hornberger why he didn’t mobilize his group earlier, when the state’s Mute Swan Task Force developed its recommendations for the DNR, he said he “really didn’t think DNR would get this far this fast.” Besides, he said, the task force outcome was a “fixed deal.”

Hard charges to be sure, but do they hold up? I also have to ask if the $1,000 reward for video wouldn’t be better used to help relocate some mutes to out-of-state preserves.

It matters little that the mute swan population in Maryland originated from benign and well-intentioned circumstances. Our only responsible alternative, however unpleasant, is to rectify the situation as quickly and humanely a possible.

Jonathan McKnight, point man for the DNR mute swan management plan, said his people were following humane euthanasia procedures outlined by the American Veterinary Medical Association. He also offered this observation:

“If this creature were any other animal other than a beautiful swan that was creating such ecological havoc, the public would have long ago demanded that we [DNR] take the action we are now taking.”



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Last updated May 8, 2003 @ 1:43am