After months of debate over the fate of the state's beautiful but annoying mute swans, Maryland officials are proposing for the first time a hunting season to keep their numbers down.
The state Department of Natural Resources recommends in a letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials that hunters control mute swan populations in the years ahead after state biologists and technicians shoot up to 1,500 of the birds.
DNR officials are seeking a federal permit to kill almost half of the state's 3,600 mute swans. They say that is necessary because the birds are an invasive species that crowds out other birds and eats millions of pounds of aquatic grasses vital to the Chesapeake Bay's health.
A hunting season for mute swans - which are distinguished from other swans by their bright orange bills - would require approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is at least two years off, the officials say.
"We're still a long way off from a hunting season," said Jonathan McKnight, associate director of habitat conservation for the Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife and Heritage Service.
The state hopes to begin shooting mute swans next month, once the Fish and Wildlife Service reviews the environmental impact such shootings would have in Maryland and 16 other states that make up the Atlantic Flyway.
Opponents of the shootings say there is no reason the swans should be shot, by state biologists or by hunters.
Maryland's plans have prompted two federal lawsuits and a petition drive this spring by animal activists who say the birds are being made a scapegoat for the bay's problems.
"They're trying to kill all of them," said Wanda Morton, one of three Eastern Shore landowners who sued in an effort to prevent the killing of the swans.
North Carolina and Virginia have hunting seasons for tundra swans, but no state has a mute swan hunting season.
"I've been told [tundra swan is] a very good meat," said Anna Seidman, a spokeswoman for Safari Club International, a Tucson, Ariz.-based group that advocates a hunting season for mute swans.
McKnight said details of the hunting season, including its length, "bag limits" and restrictions like those imposed on duck and geese hunters are yet to be worked out.
He said a mute swan season would give landowners the chance to remove the birds from their properties, which is now prohibited by federal law. Allowing landowners to cull the swans would be less expensive than requiring state biologists to obtain federal permits and do the job every few years, he said.
"It's just a degree of efficiency for us," McKnight said.
Those opposed to the shootings wonder whether anyone would hunt birds so widely admired for their beauty - and such easy targets.
"A good sportsman isn't going to shoot a bird that comes right up to you," said Patrick Hornberger, a Talbot County landowner who has been leading efforts to save the birds.
Hornberger said at least 700 people, many of them from out of state, have called in recent weeks, some offering to pay to transport swans to their properties to save them. He said state officials should be eager to help with such relocation efforts before they begin shooting.
"If you can get to the nests to shoot the birds, you can get to the birds to relocate them," he said.
DNR biologists began shooting the swans in April and killed about 80 in two weeks before stopping in reaction to the lawsuit filed by Morton, Hornberger and an Eastern Shore neighbor. As part of the settlement in that case, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to study the environmental impact of shooting the swans in Maryland and other states where permits were issued.
The federal agency is reviewing comments submitted by the public as part of that study. A draft of the study recommends issuing permits over the next 10 years that would rid East Coast states of 11,000 of the 14,000 swans that inhabit them.
The public comment period ended Wednesday. Of the 2,571 comments submitted for review, 77 supported the shooting permits. All 13 states submitting comments supported the recommendation.
Representatives of animal-protection groups said they had encouraged their members to express their opinions through e-mail campaigns and notices on Web sites.
"It's a great response. I just hope they listen," said Heidi Prescott, national director of 200,000-member Fund for Animals.
Comments ranged from outrage over the shooting plan to enthusiastic support.
"These graceful and exquisite birds give enormous pleasure to those of us lucky enough to live on this beautiful shore, and it is heartbreaking for us to have to shoot them. Please Don't," said a three-page letter handwritten by Anne Morton Kimberly, a Talbot County resident and widow of Rogers C.B. Morton, who was interior secretary under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.
A coalition of 25 wildlife groups - including the American Bird Conservancy and Audubon societies across the United States - wrote a joint letter in support of the shootings. The letter noted the impact of the swans on other birds and aquatic vegetation.
"Based on the best science obtainable, the take of adult mute swans is essential to prevent substantial escalation in the mute swan population and the damage they cause," the groups said.