Mute swans at the East Hampton Nature Trail on February 17. Michael Heller photo.
By Tessa Raebeck
New York officials have introduced legislation that would impose a two-year delay on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s plan to eradicate the state’s mute swan population by 2025.
Co-sponsored by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor, the bill would halt the DEC plan, which was introduced in December, and require the DEC to illustrate the “actual damage” the mute swan population causes to the environment or other species before exterminating the birds altogether.
“Wildlife experts, rehabilitators and environmentalists do not unanimously agree that exterminating the mute swan population is justified,” Mr. Thiele said in a statement. “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. Therefore, it is incumbent on the [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.”
Mute swans are a species of swan named “mute” because they are less vocal than other swans. Native to Europe and Asia, they were brought to North America in the late 1870s due largely to their aesthetic appeal. Initially introduced in New York as ornaments on the estates of the lower Hudson Valley and Long Island, mute swans were present in the wild by the turn of the 20th century.
According to the DEC, the mute swan population had increased to about 2,000 statewide by 1993, peaked around 2,800 in 2002 and is now estimated at about 2,200, most heavily concentrated on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley.
A mute swan in East Hampton. Zachary Persico photo.
“On the East End of Long Island, the mute swan is often visible in local ponds and waterways,” stated Mr. Thiele. “My office has not received one report in all my years in office that the mute swan is a nuisance or an environmental problem.”
The DEC says the non-native species causes a variety of environmental problems, “including aggressive behavior towards people, destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacement of native wildlife species, degradation of water quality and potential hazards to aviation.”
Although opposed to the DEC plan, local ecologist Tyler Armstrong said there are ecological benefits to reducing the population. “It would help rare native waterfowl, as mute swans defend large nesting territories and exclude other birds from nesting, as well as competing with native birds for aquatic vegetation, like eelgrass,” he said.
The DEC has conducted “mute swan control activities” since 1993, but not to the extent permitted by the new management plan, which will include shooting free-ranging swans on public lands and private lands (with owner consent) and live capture and euthanasia.
North Haven resident Richard Gambino, professor emeritus at Queens College, said the DEC’s reasons for exterminating the swans are scientifically flawed.
“Everything affects the environment. The question is, do we have a sufficient reason, a necessary reason to kill them off, to exterminate them—and I don’t think we have one here,” he said, calling the plan “extreme.” The aggression shown by swans is evident in all mammals when they feel threatened and it’s arbitrary to call a species “alien” when it has been present for over 130 years, he added.
“If you’ve got a system such as nature—which is the most extreme system, with countless variables changing just about every second—we’re very limited in our ability to predict it,” he said, referring to the chaos theory.
Comments can be sent to the DEC by email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Swan Plan” in the subject line by February 21.