WASHINGTON – State wildlife manager Jonathan McKnight concedes that a beauty contest between the long-necked, graceful mute swan and the toothy, slimy snakehead fish is no contest.
But both are invasive species that need to be controlled so they do not harm native plants and wildlife, he said. That’s an easy sell with the snakehead, but a different story with the swan and its defenders.
“Everyone’s all up in arms about mute swans only because they’re beautiful,” said McKnight, the associate director for habitat conservation at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
While people are quick to poison ugly fish, McKnight says it is much harder getting them to realize that the bird behind the ballet “Swan Lake,” is what he calls a very, very bad thing for the bay ecosystem. He said the beautiful swans are an ecological nightmare that has been worse, so far, than the ferocious-looking fish.
McKnight said the mute swans, native to Eurasia, over-consume underwater grasses and drive out other birds.
The long-term effect of the snakehead is still unknown. About 1,000 snakeheads — an Asian fish that can wriggle through mud or wet grass and could displace other fish — were discovered and killed in a Crofton pond in 2002, and about 20 have been found in waterways in the region this year, often garnering headlines.
But the swan’s defenders say their fight is about more than a pretty countenance.
“This is an animal that has endeared itself to many, many waterfront residents,” said Trappe resident Patrick Hornberger, who heads a small group called Save Maryland’s Swans. “The grass has nothing to do with this bird.”
While some conservation groups, including Environmental Defense and the National Audubon Society, have sided with the DNR, Hornberger and an animal rights group, the Fund for Animals, have not.
“The DNR is playing fast and loose with the numbers because they have some sort of cultural vendetta against nonnative animals,” said Michael Markarian, president of the Fund for Animals.
His group successfully sued in May 2003 to stop Maryland from killing the swans, which are protected under the 1918 Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Legislation that would exempt non-native species from the act is pending in Congress.
“Mute swans are very appealing to the public and that’s just one more reason why the public should have a say in how these animals are treated,” Markarian said.
Since the lawsuit stopped the state from doing anything to limit the swans’ numbers this year, McKnight said the population is growing faster than ever. He said those new swans will consume even more underwater grasses — a mute swan can eat 8 pounds of grasses a day — and take over more habitat from native species.
McKnight estimates that there are now more than 4,000 swans in the state, up from about 3,600 last year. If their numbers swelled to 10,000, which McKnight said could happen in less than 10 years, the problems caused by the birds would become apparent.
Already, the swan, by sheer size and aggressiveness, has forced the black skimmer bird out of Maryland’s portion of the bay and has displaced another native bird, the least tern, said Gerald Winegrad, vice president for policy at the American Bird Conservancy.
Winegrad noted that groups do not step in to defend the snakehead or the nutria, a 25-pound South American rodent that destroys bay marshes. The Department of Natural Resources uses snap traps to kill nutria.
But, Markarian noted that, “Nutria are not protected by any federal law . . . mute swans are.”
McKnight said the groups defending the swan do so to boost support.
“Let’s picture a fund-raising campaign featuring Sammy the Snakehead or Nelly Nutria or a zebra mussel,” McKnight said. “Organizations like this are going to choose a charismatic animal.”
Markarian dismissed the charge, adding that his group defends “all animals from unnecessary and irresponsible cruelty.”
“It doesn’t matter whether mute swans are beautiful or not, they’re still not causing damage,” he said.
McKnight disagrees, but concedes that it is hard to get people to look past the fairy tale bird to what he says is the moral at the end of the story.
“The mute swan is beautiful. It’s a fairy tale creature. It’s a symbol of stateliness and beauty,” McKnight said. “The damage it does is not something people see every day.”
-30- CNS 09-17-04