A federal judge cleared the way yesterday for Maryland wildlife officials to start killing mute swans, ending a two-year challenge from animal-rights groups to save the beautiful but destructive birds.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan denied a petition from the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals to extend federal protections to the birds, which now number more than 3,600 in Maryland and are multiplying quickly.
The non-native swans consume large amounts of Chesapeake Bay grasses, which provide food for migratory birds and crucial habitat for crabs and other bay life.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologists can begin killing the birds immediately. But DNR's wildlife managers, wary of the many challenges from swan-lovers, are not disclosing their plans.
"I'm not going to be very specific about when we are going to start, because we don't want to have someone get in the way and make this any less safe or less humane than it can be," said Jonathan McKnight, DNR's associate director for habitat conservation. "It will be this year. We think we've held off for too long."
Two years ago, when the animal-rights groups first challenged DNR's right to kill the swans, Sullivan ruled in favor of the birds. But late last year, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest put language into a federal spending bill that essentially removed mute swans from the list of species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The new federal statute prompted Sullivan to rule against the swans this time.
"The record in this case indicates that Congress did express a clear intent to exclude non-native species, including mute swans, from the protections afforded other migratory birds by the Conventions and the MBTA," Sullivan wrote.
McKnight said the two-year delay has made an unpleasant task harder - many adult swans have reached breeding age, and many more grass beds have been destroyed. Though DNR embarked on an aggressive egg-addling program to snuff out a new generation of mute swans, biologists were not able to reach many nests.
Jonathan Lovvorn, the Humane Society's vice president for animal protection litigation, said DNR has yet to prove that the birds are destructive to grass beds. He said the group is disappointed in the decision, and is not ruling out further legal action to protect the swans.
"The court chose not to stop them from shooting the birds. None of that changes the fact that Maryland still has no hard science showing it's necessary to kill these birds," he said. "The overall issue is far from over."
Many conservation groups - among them the Audubon Society, the American Bird Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy - have sided with the state and want mute swan populations reduced. They say that science clearly shows that mute swans, despite their fairy-tale good looks, have hurt the bay since their arrival in the 1950s, when an Eastern Shore landowner imported them to decorate his estate.
Perry Plumart, director of conservation advocacy at the American Bird Conservancy, calls the swan "the snakehead of the Chesapeake Bay" - referring to the voracious fish that famously disrupted the ecosystem of a Crofton pond three years ago and is now eating its way through the Potomac River.
"If you care about native birds, and the health of the Chesapeake Bay, then some controls have to be put on the mute swans, which are not supposed to be there anyway," Plumart said. "It was the right thing to do two years ago, and it's the right thing to do today."