An animal protection group filed a federal lawsuit yesterday to stop Maryland natural resources agents from shooting up to 1,500 mute swans, a hunt that began last month because biologists say the birds' appetite for aquatic grass is damaging the Chesapeake Bay.
The Fund for Animals and three Eastern Shore residents argue in their suit that federal officials failed to conduct a required environmental study before they issued a shooting permit, "effectively writing the State of Maryland a blank check to kill" the birds.
The suit argues that before allowing Maryland to cut its mute swan population in half, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should have consulted experts, sought public input and looked for alternatives.
"In this case, they didn't do any of that," said Michael Markarian, president of the Silver Spring-based Fund for Animals.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, names as defendants Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Steven Williams, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Diana Weaver, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, countered that the agency may issue "depredation" permits allowing states to eliminate animals that are harming a habitat without first conducting a detailed environmental study.
"They can be issued if the species is shown to be a health hazard or is found to be damaging a particular business, like a fish farm, or an environment," Weaver said.
Amy R. Atwood, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said she faxed a letter to Interior Department lawyers yesterday asking them to revoke the permit by Friday afternoon. She said that if the permit is not rescinded, she will seek a court order to stop more swans from being shot.
"We want to stop the program while the case is litigated," she said.
State biologists and wildlife technicians have shot about 100 swans, and the state has no immediate plans to halt the program, said Jonathan McKnight, associate director of habitat conservation for the Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife and Heritage Service.
He said the hunt occurs during daylight hours, with up to three teams composed of two to three biologists and technicians working from small aluminum boats or trudging through marshy tracts in waterfront areas.
The carcasses are buried or incinerated at state facilities, such as the Department of Agriculture veterinary lab in Salisbury.
The suit says the shooting program denies the plaintiffs the "aesthetic enjoyment" that goes with observing the swans, which nest and frequent the marshes near their waterfront homes.
"We feel that the public was never fully informed about this," said Patrick Hornberger of Trappe, one of the three individual plaintiffs. The other plaintiffs are Wanda C. Morton of Easton and Mandy Hawes of St. Michaels.
The suit argues that Maryland's mute swan population is already declining, making the shooting unnecessary. The number of mute swans in Maryland decreased from 3,955 in 1999 to 3,600 last year, according to the suit.
DNR's McKnight said the swans' numbers have declined recently because of harsh winters, but that the birds are so prolific that without the shooting program, there would be 20,000 in Maryland by 2013. Today's mute swans are all descended from five birds that escaped from a Talbot County estate in 1962.
Maryland officials announced the swan elimination plan last month, saying the birds eat up to 10 million pounds of vital bay grasses each year and crowd out native species such as the tern and black duck.
Mute swans, distinguishable from the six other swan species by their orange bills, were first imported from Europe and Asia in the 1800s to decorate large estates.
The state has been trying to reduce the mute swan population for years. Past efforts included having volunteers coat the swans' eggs with vegetable oil to keep them from hatching, a process known as addling.
But Hornberger and the other plaintiffs say the birds are being made a "scapegoat" for the bay's pollution problems and that there are no conclusive studies showing the swans are eating too much grass or crowding out native birds.
Hornberger said he has gathered about 200 signatures on petitions signed by supporters and by local landowners who pledge to bar future DNR research on their properties if the shooting continues.
The group is collecting signatures through volunteers on the Eastern Shore and on its Web site, savemarylandswans.org. The protesters hope to submit the signatures to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the next few weeks.
Another national animal rights organization, Friends of Animals, has posted a $1,000 offer on its Web site and is running a series of newspaper ads seeking "quality" videotapes showing DNR officials killing swans.
The group believes that a video of swans being killed would help create a public outcry against the program.