Activists against culling of mute swans

2:36 PM, Jun 25, 2012   |    comments
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Mute swan in Wolverine Lake. (Courtesy: Regina Boone/Detroit Free Press)

LANSING, Mich. (Detroit Free Press) -- The Michigan Department of Natural Resources calls the mute swan -- a bird noted for its white, billowy feathers; black mask-like marking; orange bill, and long, curved neck -- one of the most aggressive waterfowl species in the world.

The state is aiming to reduce Michigan's mute swan population, with about 15,500 of the birds spread across every county, to fewer than 2,000 by 2030. The DNR's management plan allows for killing the birds with a single shot to the head as one of several lethal options.

But an Oakland County woman and other residents are fighting that plan by signing an online petition and opposing community resolutions that aim to reduce the mute swan population. Karen Stamper of Walled Lake, who is leading the charge, said she wants residents to be able to decide the swans' fate in a state election.

"I think they're blowing it way out of proportion, and they have no backup," Stamper, 46, said of the threat posed by the birds and the evidence that the DNR uses to support its plan. "They've been here since the 1800s. How long until something's native?"

Stamper, the deputy treasurer for Commerce Township, has gathered more than 2,650 signatures on an online petition at change.org asking DNR officials and Gov. Rick Snyder to stop the killing. The Humane Society of the United States has joined the effort and wants the DNR to stop mute swan killings and develop a humane management plan.

The DNR's position -- echoed by other state wildlife agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services and various conservation groups -- is that mute swans are an invasive, nonnative species with a destructively voracious appetite for delicate aquatic vegetation. The department says the mute swan population is growing exponentially and needs to be brought under control.

Michigan, which got its first mute swans in 1919 when a pair was brought to Charlevoix, now has the largest population of mute swans in North America.

"We're trying to address this before we really start seeing some detrimental problems in this state," said Barbara Avers, a DNR waterfowl and wetlands specialist. "We recognize it's a very emotional issue for a lot of folks -- they're a very big, beautiful bird and very conspicuous."

Although generally quiet, as their name implies, mute swans will hiss if they feel threatened.

The birds were brought to the U.S. from Europe in the 1800s to decorate estates and parks, and many eventually escaped into the wild.

Avers said mute swans are aggressive toward humans and native waterfowl, such as the loon and trumpeter swan -- an even larger swan being reintroduced into Michigan. She said the negative impacts on submerged aquatic vegetation are well-established.

Avers said the department regularly receives reports of mute swans attacking people or dogs. The swans stand as high as 5 feet with an outstretched neck, and can use their wings to beat their opponents.

"A young child couldn't defend himself against a bird of that size," Avers said.

Avers said a man drowned near Des Plaines, Ill., in April while using a kayak to check on mute swans that were being used to keep geese away from a pond. Authorities have said they believe the man fell into the water when a mute swan attacked him, and he was unable to make it to shore.

Avers acknowledged that territoriality varies with individual mute swans, as it does with other waterfowl.

"We're certainly not saying that every mute swan is going to attack you," she said.

Stamper said mute swans are being demonized because they are good parents who aggressively protect their young. During a visit to Wolverine Lake, Stamper and others in her group got within a few yards of a nesting mute swan. The swan rustled her feathers a bit as she sensed people nearby but otherwise sat quietly, even rising once to adjust one of the seven eggs she was keeping warm.

Avers said the agency won't reach its goal of reducing the swan population to fewer than 2,000 if it stops killing the birds. Other techniques, such as destroying nests and spraying eggs with corn oil to smother the developing birds inside, also are included in the management plan.

Avers said 1,756 mute swans were killed in the state in 2011, compared with the approximately 650 killed in 2010. The DNR issues permits at no charge to kill the birds or employ other control means, typically using USDA wildlife specialists and biologists when 70% of lakefront property owners sign a petition requesting it or when a municipal government passes a resolution allowing mute swan management in an area.

The USDA, through a special grant, is putting $118,000 into the effort. The DNR, through its hunting and fishing license fund, is paying $23,000 this fiscal year to control mute swans.

Dan Buyze, who chairs the ecology committee for the Big Whitefish Lake Property Owners Association, said the DNR is correct in both its assessment of the mute swan's impact and its approach to managing the birds.

"It's very easy for an individual to dispute those facts if they (only see) one or two swimming around," Buyze said.

Buyze, 60, said he has spent most of his life around Big Whitefish Lake, near Pierson, but didn't begin seeing mute swans there until 15-20 years ago. He said they were a nice addition to the lake's waterfowl until their numbers climbed substantially about eight years ago.

"We're not out to decimate the entire population, just bring it to a manageable level, and that's the state's goal as well," Buyze said.

Stamper is critical of the DNR's entire plan, but said she is less opposed to egg and nest destruction, if done properly, than she is to killing live birds.

"I don't like any of it and they should prove their case before they do anything, and they haven't done it," she said.

John Grandy, senior vice president for wildlife and habitat protection for the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International, said the DNR should work to control the mute swan population through humane methods. He called the DNR's goal of 2,000 mute swans an arbitrary number.

"Mute swans have certainly been here long enough to be considered good neighbors and treasured natural resources, and they ought to be managed as we manage other treasured resources," he said. "Trying to vilify an animal as beautiful and majestic as the mute swan is a travesty."

The battle over the mute swan's fate also is being fought in some metro Detroit communities.

West Bloomfield Supervisor Michele Economou Ureste said about a dozen people called her in defense of mute swans in recent days after the township board approved a resolution a week ago to remove mute swans.

Economou Ureste said Thursday that she wants the resolution, which has not been made effective, rescinded at the board's next meeting on July 16. That position was echoed by township Clerk Catherine Shaughnessy, who said the board was under the erroneous impression the removal wouldn't involve killing swans.

The township, which features a picture of a mute swan pair on its website, was modeling its resolution on one passed in April in neighboring Bloomfield Township. The Middle Straits Lake Association had asked for the West Bloomfield resolution, citing swan attacks on watercraft and the growing population of the birds.

Economou Ureste said there is "more to the story" than the DNR's portrayal of the bird.

"There's been an outcry for the mute swan," she said.

More Details: How to be heard

• To speak with the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division about the plan to reduce the number of mute swans, call 517-373-1263.

• To sign an online petition opposing the plan, go to: www.change.org/petitions/stop-the-killing-of-mute-swans-in-michigan.

By Eric D. Lawrence, Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

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