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After thousands of comments, DEC will revise mute swan plan

The DEC's draft plan had called for eliminating the wild mute swan population. File photo

February 24, 2014 | 05:15 PM
This story was updated on Feb. 28.

When the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced its plan to eliminate the wild mute swan population in the state, thousands of people spoke up, commenting on the draft plan through emails, form letters and petitions.

The DEC's comment period on the plan ended on Feb. 21 and with 1,500 individual comments, more than 16,000 form-letter emails and 25,000 signatures on various petitions, 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, that was sent on Feb. 20 to several individuals who oppose the plan.

While Riexinger didn't return a call for comment to elaborate on what type of revisions will be made, the DEC announced on Feb. 28 that it "likely will acknowledge regional differences in status, potential impacts and desired population goals by setting varying goals for different regions of the state." The DEC also said it will consider "non-lethal means" for population management.

The DEC announced its plan in December to make wild mute swans a thing of the past — by hunting the adults, euthanizing some, using others for zoological purposes or transferring the birds to someone licensed for holding them in captivity.

Mute swans aren't actually mute but make less noise than other types of swans.

"The long-term goal of this management plan is to eliminate free-ranging mute swans from New York State by 2025," according to the DEC's draft management plan, because "mute swans are a non-native, invasive species that has the potential to adversely impact native wildlife and their habitats."

The draft management plan would have replaced one from 1993 that the DEC adopted and has been operating under for close to 20 years. This new plan comes after the DEC conducted research "to document abundance, survival, reproduction, movements, ecological impacts and management of mute swans in New York" from 2004 to 2008.

The DEC said that based on the research, there is growing concern about the non-native, invasive bird species and thus it developed the management plan to replace the 1993 management policy.

The DEC estimates there are 2,200 free-ranging mute swans in New York, distributed on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley and Lake Ontario regions.

Trumpeter swans and tundra swans, both with black beaks, are visibly set apart from mute swans, which have orange beaks, and as both birds are native to North America, unlike mute swans, they will be allowed to stay.

Mute swans — of which ownership was a status symbol in some European cultures — were first brought to the state in the late 1800s and used for ornamental purposes. In coming years, some were released or escaped from captivity.

According to the DEC, the mute swan population around the state increased from fewer than 700 in the 1970s to more than 2,500 by the year 2000.

The DEC states in its draft management plan that mute swans can attack humans and "the aggressive behavior of swans can be a serious nuisance and render some land or water areas inaccessible for outdoor recreation during the nesting season."

The plan also states that when large flocks stay on bodies of water used for drinking or swimming, their feces may contribute to high fecal coliform counts.

Environmental and animal rights groups across the state spoke against the plan, including Elaine Maas and Susan Krause, on the executive board of Four Harbors Audubon Society, which encompasses Smithtown, Stony Brook, Port Jefferson and Mount Sinai.

Maas and Krause penned a letter to the DEC during its open comment period, calling the plan to eliminate the bird from the wild "unwarranted and without merit."

The two take issue with the state's methodology for understanding ecology and impacts of mute swans in the state.

"Despite the stated intentions, the DEC report instead relies heavily on secondary research, taking data and using references repeatedly from out-of-state sources, some of these from environmental conditions in other states from over 40 years ago," the letter states.

They argue that the DEC's conclusions that mute swans have had devastating negative impacts on other nesting native wildfowl in the state, that they create devastation to submerged aquatic vegetation and that they pollute water are invalid.

"Ultimately, it is inappropriate for the DEC to use the non-native argument in managing (wiping out) one non-native bird, for which scientific evidence of negative impact is at best sketchy."

State legislators, including Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), are penning legislation or co-sponsoring existing bills to establish moratoriums on the DEC's draft plan.

Queens Sen. Tony Avella's bill has a memo that explains "wildlife experts, rehabilitators and environmentalists do not unanimously agree that exterminating the mute swan population is justified. In addition, there is debate amongst such experts about whether the planned eradication of the mute swan population is even minimally beneficial to the ecosystem or to our environment."

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