Mute Swans Spark Loud Debate in Chesapeake Bay

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But one animal-rights group has not been as receptive, arguing that pollution, not swans, is the primary threat to aquatic vegetation. On May 13, the New York-based Fund for Animals filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging a federal permit that enabled the Maryland DNR plan to proceed. The Fund for Animals' lawsuit contends that the permit violates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the International Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds and sidesteps public review and comment.

"There are major threats to the Chesapeake Bay, including [the effects of] pollution and industries," said Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals. "It's much easier for DNR to throw up its hands and say 'Let's shoot a few hundred swans,' than it is to deal with these other issues."

In response to the lawsuit, DNR agreed to suspend its mute swan management plan. While Markarian called this an "eleventh-hour reprieve" for the swans, McKnight, with the state DNR, is concerned that the suspension will do more harm to the Chesapeake Bay. All management activities, including egg addling, have stopped pending review of the plan.

"While I can appreciate [animal-rights advocates'] concern for these animals, I ask people to look at the three years we put into finding alternatives, and to look at the scientific literature we're using," McKnight said. "We're not doing this because we're bloodthirsty. Who wants to shoot these birds that we agree are beautiful and graceful and majestic? But we're still looking for an alternative that will achieve maximum protection for aquatic grass vegetation without killing these birds."

However, DNR argues that the relocation of mute swans into unoccupied habitats would increase the distribution of the species. The agency has also stated that the relocation of same-sex pairs does not prevent breeding if a bird of the opposite sex enters the relocation site.

For now, state officials, environmental and animal-rights groups, and bay enthusiasts must wait for a federal decision that could seal the swans' fate. Until then, mute swans—as beautiful as they are destructive—will continue their reign in the Chesapeake Bay.

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