Injection and shooting may be used to lessen mute swan population

State plan would not go into effect until winter

July 18, 2002|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Mute swans will continue to reproduce at a high rate and threaten wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay unless the state uses several means, including lethal injection or shooting, to stop the growth of the non-native waterfowl, according to a state plan to be released today.

The plan, written by a Maryland Department of Natural Resources task force, would not go into effect until the winter. DNR officials will spend the next 60 days studying public reaction and surveying the bay to determine which areas are the most populated with mute swans, Director Paul Peditto said.

"We don't have all the answers, but at the same time we cannot sit back and wait any longer," Peditto said.

DNR officials say the mute swan population has swelled to 4,000 in Maryland, about one-third of the entire Atlantic Coast population. They say the birds are bad for the bay because they eat large amounts of underwater grasses - up to 9 million pounds a year - which provide essential shelter for crabs and fish, and replenish water quality.

The state would continue efforts to prevent swan eggs from hatching by shaking them or coating them with corn oil, which blocks oxygen from reaching the embryos. It would also designate "exclusion areas" where swans would be removed or killed. Those areas would be determined partly based on which communities show the most support for the program, Peditto said.

"We're going to take a hard and meaningful look at the [public] comments," Peditto said.

Wildlife managers would kill swans only where they judge that nonlethal means won't work, Peditto said.

Some opponents of the plan say it is a step toward allowing hunting of the birds.

"They're trying to do anything to build up hunting numbers again," said Kathryn Burton, founder of Save Our Swans USA in Old Lyme, Conn., which has sued federal wildlife officials to prevent killing of mute swans. "To single out these birds and say, `Oh my God, they're eating the grass,' is ridiculous."

But supporters contend that the swans must be controlled. "The mutes are an invasive species, and if the trend that we've seen continues, they will be everywhere," said Bob Orth, a researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

The orange-beaked bird, which weighs 18 to 25 pounds and eats 6 to 8 pounds of grass a day, was brought to America from Europe in the 1800s. The area's population remained below 500 throughout the 1980s. DNR officials believe many swans during that time died of lead poisoning by eating bullets left by hunters.

Shortly after the use of lead shot in hunting was banned during the late 1980s, the swan population grew drastically, said Larry Hindman, DNR's waterfowl program leader.

Sun staff writer Heather Dewar contributed to this article.

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