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Mute Swans

PARTY OF SEVEN Jane Edsall spotted this family of mute swans swimming in Mount Sinai Harbor two weeks ago. She writes, “I am a resident of Mount Sinai and have enjoyed the harbor and its wildlife my whole life.” Brought to this country from Europe in the mid-1800s to adorn city parks and large estates, mute swans are known to mate for life. The cygnets will stay with their parents through the first winter.

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Mute swans peruse the Setauket Harbor waters. Photo by Maria Hoffman

By Susan Risoli

Mute swans might soon have an easier relationship with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, if a bill recently passed through the York State Legislature is signed into law.

The legislation was written to require DEC to provide scientific documentation that mute swans are a threat to the environment. Also, before taking any action to control the state’s mute swan population, the DEC would have to hold at least two public hearings and give the public at least 45 days to comment on its plans for dealing with the birds.

The legislation package passed the state Assembly June 9 and had passed the state Senate on April 22.

Mute swans, a non-native species from Europe, are considered an invasive species, according to the state DEC. Trumpeter swans, also found in New York, are native to the region and are not included in the DEC’s management plan.

The agency’s proposed mute swan management plan, released in March, called for limiting the statewide population to 800 birds. By 2002, there were more than 2,000 mute swans downstate and 200 upstate, the report said.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Environmental Conservation, said in a phone interview Tuesday that the mute swan legislation was a response to public concern “that had been raised, particularly about the lack of appropriate science to justify this eradication of a very beautiful animal” that inspires “a sense of curiosity about the environment,” particularly among children.

In April, Englebright and Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), also a member of the Committee on Environmental Conservation, sent DEC’s Bureau of Wildlife a letter saying the agency disregarded the state Legislature’s requests for “full documentation of the scientific basis for management decisions” and requests for “less reliance on lethal management measures. The DEC has failed to provide compelling scientific information as to why such an aggressive management strategy is being pursued.”

DEC spokesman Jomo Miller said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the agency is reviewing the letter from Englebright and Cymbrowitz “as part of its review of the comments received” on the draft management plan. The DEC hopes to adopt a final plan later this summer, Miller said.

“At that time, we will provide a response to the principal comments received, as we did for comments on the first draft of the plan,” he said.

In an interview, Englebright said the legislation is “not just an exercise in willfulness on our part but an exercise in democracy,” and it reflects “a very high interest” from the public about the fate of the swans.

The legislation would require DEC to “give priority to nonlethal management techniques” for controlling the mute swan population. The proposed plan said it does not advocate any specific method of controlling the population, and because many people object to the use of lethal control methods, especially killing adult birds, the DEC will use “nonlethal” methods where practical and timely to achieve the management objectives, the report said.

Research shows that mute swans “can significantly reduce the availability of submerged aquatic vegetation in wetland ecosystems” depending on the number of swans relative to the size of the area being considered, the spokesperson said.

The DEC said in the draft management plan that mute swans hurt the environment by eating and uprooting large quantities of plants that are food for fish and other wildlife. Swan feces have high levels of coliform bacteria, which can make waters unsafe for drinking, swimming and shell fishing, the document said. Their presence near airports poses “a serious threat to aviation,” the plan said. It also said that territorial swans have been known to attack people and other birds.

Following public outcry against a plan to eliminate wild mute swan populations over the next decade, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has released a new draft of its plan that focuses on “nonlethal” methods to control the birds.

Thousands of people, including animal rights advocates and environmentalists, had sent in comments last year on the previous draft of the plan, whose stated long-term goal was “to eliminate free-ranging mute swans from New York State by 2025.” Many took issue with the DEC’s plans to euthanize the adult birds and questioned the validity of the department’s research on mute swans’ impact on the environment.

In addition, state legislators approved a two-year moratorium on any plan to euthanize the swans and required the DEC to “give priority to nonlethal management techniques.”

The first draft of the plan also called for using some swans for zoological purposes and transferring others to people licensed to hold them in captivity.

According to the DEC, mute swans, which have orange beaks and make less noise than other types of swans, can contribute to high fecal coliform bacteria counts on bodies of water used for drinking or swimming. They can also attack humans, which can make them “a serious nuisance and render some land or water areas inaccessible for outdoor recreation during the nesting season.”

There are about 2,200 free-ranging mute swans in New York, the DEC has estimated, and they can be found on Long Island, in New York City and in the lower Hudson Valley and Lake Ontario regions. The population has jumped from where it was in the 1970s, when mute swans numbered fewer than 700.

New York has other species of swan, but mute swans are considered invasive and non-native — they were brought here in the late 1800s and used for ornamental purposes — and thus were targeted for management. The DEC’s goal, as stated in the plan’s most recent draft, is to reduce the mute swan population to its 1980 numbers: fewer than 800 birds.

The DEC has been operating under the same species management plan since 1993, and the new mute swan plan would replace the older one. In preparation for the plan, the DEC conducted research between 2004 and 2008 “to document abundance, survival, reproduction, movements, ecological impacts and management of mute swans in New York.”

Following public backlash of the first draft, the department this month released its new draft of the management plan, which focuses on alternatives to euthanization, and a document responding to public comments it received.

“Because many people object to the use of lethal control methods, especially killing adult birds, DEC will use ‘nonlethal’ methods … where practical and timely, to achieve the management objectives,” the new plan stated. Those methods could include terminating embryos in the swans’ eggs or placing the birds in licensed facilities.

“However, this will require some commitment of funding and assistance from organizations and individuals who wish to see nonlethal options used to the extent possible. Placement and proper care of swans in public parks or other controlled settings can be costly to local governments or communities.”

Despite the emphasis on nonlethal methods, the DEC said in its response to public comments, officials would still resort to lethal methods “wherever immediate removal of birds is necessary to alleviate a site-specific conflict … and live-capture is not practical or no facility is readily available to accept the birds.”

The new DEC plan’s agenda for minimizing the impacts of mute swans on other wildlife and habitats includes increasing public support and awareness; preventing new swans from entering wild populations “through intentional releases, escapes or natural reproduction”; and controlling the number of mute swans on downstate tidal waters.

Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), one of the legislators who worked to place a moratorium on the swan euthanization, said in a statement last week that the DEC “has heard our concerns and has begun to move in the right direction.”

But the new plan still allows for swans to be eliminated under certain circumstances, and he cautioned that the birds “should only be destroyed as the absolute last resort, and only when they are posing public danger.”

The public can comment on the plan until April 24. Comments can be submitted to FW.wildlf@dec.ny.gov or to NYSDEC Bureau of Wildlife, Swan Management Plan, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754.