A mute swan. Image: nottsexminer/Wikimedia
In December 2013, New York's Department of Environmental Conservation announced a plan to cull the state's invasive mute swan population. The document formalized its intention to completely eradicate the estimated 2,200 wild birds by 2025, mostly by shooting, gassing, and decapitation.
“Mute swans can cause a variety of problems,” reasoned the DEC in a statement. “Aggressive behavior towards people, destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacement of native wildlife species, degradation of water quality, and potential hazards to aviation” were cited as examples.
That's an impressive list of concerns, but New Yorkers weren't sold. The DEC was overwhelmed by 16,000 letters and 30,000 petition signatures defending the swans' right to life. Many animal rights advocates pointed out that the birds are only aggressive when provoked, and that their effect on their environments should be minimal with a stabilized population.
State senator Tony Avella went so far as to introduce a bill that would force a two-year moratorium on the plan. “I was horrified to learn that our state wildlife agency would make such an extreme, unfounded proposal, and do not believe that the DEC has provided evidence to justify the elimination of these beautiful swans," Avella said.
And “beautiful” may be the key word here. Swans aren't the only species the DEC is targeting over the next decade, but they are the prettiest. For example, the invasive wild swine of New York have also been considered for culls, as have others on the “priority species” list. But boars, beetles, and zebra mussels simply do not elicit the same widespread sympathy as the bird that populates so many myths and fairy tales.
Feral swine in captivity. Photo via USDAgov.
This phenomenon is nothing new; it's often lamented that marquee species like pandas and tigers—animals traditionally deemed beautiful—get more attention from the public, conservation groups, and their donors. Here, the same effect is sparing pretty swans—at the expense of other indigenous species—while other invasive animals are lined up for the slaughter. After all, the DEC is not targeting swans specifically, nor was their announcement out of the blue.
“Invasive species can have a devastating effect, not only on the environment, but also on the economy,” DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens said in a statement about the PRISM approach. “By partnering with non-profits, universities and consultants, New York is establishing one of the nation's most comprehensive approaches to invasive species management.”
But woe be unto Martens for grouping mute swans with less decorative foreign transgressors. In response to the enormous backlash, Martens doubled back on the plan to kill off the birds. “The draft plan for management for mute swans received significant public interest and DEC received many thoughtful and substantive comments,” he said. “The DEC will consider non-lethal means to achieve the management plan's intended goals.”
By “non-lethal means,” Martens means tampering with the swans' fertilized eggs, either by addling them or oiling them so they don't successfully hatch. He also invited New Yorkers to brainstorm other humane ways to curb the swan population, which will be included in a revised draft of the plan released later this spring. It won't be the first time birth control is proposed over straight-up killing—the Hudson River Valley deer may end up sterilized rather than violently culled due to a similar outcry over managing their growing numbers.
New York's swans aren't safe yet. But hopefully, the public desire to protect them will lead to more humane methods for curbing the populations of other invasive species. Even the ugly ones.