21/09/2017
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United States takes aim at non-native swans

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A new Mute Swan eradication programme is causing controversy in New York State.

Though widely celebrated as symbols of love and beauty in Europe, Mute Swan is regarded as an aggressive and destructive invader in the United States – and one that needs wiping out.

Native to Eurasia, introduced Mute Swans have multiplied in New York, the upper Mid-West and along the Atlantic coast since they were imported in the 1800s to adorn parks and wealthy estates. However, six states now have swan removal policies, ranging from egg shaking to shooting or gassing adult birds.

New York is now on the third draft of its anti-swan programme. While less lethal than the original 2013 plan calling for elimination all of the state’s free-ranging Mute Swans by 2025, it has nonetheless drawn angry reactions from animal lovers who want the birds to be left alone.

Most of the state’s 1,700 Mute Swans are in the New York City area, with a smaller population at Lake Ontario. Biologists say they deplete and damage aquatic vegetation with their voracious feeding, leaving less food and cover for native waterfowl and fish.

Michigan’s wildlife agency claimed Mute Swan is “one of the world’s most aggressive waterfowl species,” attacking native Trumpeter Swans, divers, ducks and other waterfowl. The agency says it gets reports every year of Mute Swan attacks on canoeists, kayakers and people who get too close to shoreline nests.

Michigan’s Mute Swan population rose from 5,700 birds to more than 15,000 in just 10 years, before management efforts were launched to keep the numbers – and attendent ecosystem damage – from ballooning further. The plan is to reduce the population to fewer than 2,000 individuals by 2030. Maryland wildlife personnel have killed hundreds of Mute Swans in Chesapeake Bay to protect aquatic plants and native waterfowl. Wisconsin, with about 600 swans, has a goal of state-wide elimination through shooting adult birds and shaking eggs. Indiana, Ohio and Minnesota all have similar reduction policies.

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Legal battles over state-sponsored swan eradication programmes led to congressional action that allowed the US Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the species from federal protection in 2005.

New York’s Mute Swan proposal has brought a deluge of protest, prompting the Legislature to pass a bill putting any action on hold for two years and requiring the state to provide more scientific justification for its plan, minimise any killing and hold public hearings. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill last autumn after rejecting two previous versions.

The latest swan-reduction programme allows the killing of swans upstate that can’t be captured and relocated to facilities where they’ll be confined with clipped wings. Downstate, it emphasises population control by damaging eggs.

State efforts to eliminate Mute Swans have public support, albeit less vocal than the opposition. Basil Seggos, commissioner of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said: “Wildlife management can present challenges in trying to balance conflicting interests, such as when a beautiful bird can have harmful impacts.”

Bill Conners, a retiree active in fish and game organisations in the lower Hudson Valley, added: “People fall in love with them; they don’t understand the broader implications. They are pretty birds, but they don't belong on the landscape here.”