Grossman Column: Speaking up for mute swans

KATHERINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | A mute swan mother with her cygnets.

Lunch at The Dory on the Island has been brightened for my wife and me by the sight of swans gliding on Chase Creek. If the the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has its way, that sight might be a thing of the past.

Of the 2,200 swans in New York, 1,600 of these graceful, elegant birds are on the ponds and lakes, bays and other waters of Long Island. But the DEC wants to cut the state total to 800, and an effort is underway to convince Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill establishing a moratorium to stop the DEC from going ahead with its radical plan.

The bill for a moratorium was approved overwhelmingly this spring in the New York State Legislature by 60 to 1 in the Senate and 132 to 15 in the State Assembly.

“We need to make our voices heard and support mute swans and urge Governor Cuomo to sign this legislation,” said David Karopkin, founder and director of GooseWatch NYC. It has a petition on its website — — for people to sign calling on Mr. Cuomo to accept the bill. It’s also asking that people “flood the governor’s phone line” at 518-474-8390. Mr. Karopkin speaks of a “war on wildlife” in New York State that must be stopped.

Last year, Mr. Cuomo vetoed a similar bill, stressing in his “veto message” that the DEC was developing “a revised draft plan.” Therefore, the governor wrote, “this bill is not needed.”

The DEC began developing the “revised” plan in the face of strong disapproval by members of the State Legislature and the public to its scheme. This opposition has continued to heat up over the revised version, which provides for less killing of swans in favor of clipping their wings and “addling” their eggs so they don’t hatch.

State Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), whose district encompasses Shelter Island and the rest of the East End, said in a statement that “my colleagues and I approved legislation calling for the halt to the killing of mute swans for two consecutive years now.”

Senator LaValle noted in his statement that in 2014 “the governor vetoed the measure stating that the DEC was going to take steps to revise the plan. When the DEC released the last draft plan, I was pleased the DEC seemed to hear our concerns and began to move in the right direction. However, I called attention to the fact that the plan still allowed for the destruction of these birds on Long Island in certain circumstances. I believe that mute swans should only be destroyed as the absolute last resort and only when they are posing public danger. The legislature’s solution is a reasonable approach that enables public input; requires scientific bases for decisions; and gives priority to non-lethal management techniques.”

Although the DEC wants to go after swans claiming they are an “invasive” species, Long Island naturalist Larry Penny, former director of the East Hampton Town Department of Environmental Protection, calls the claim “nonsense.” Mr. Penny emphasizes that swans were brought to North America from Europe long ago, after the Civil War, and, further, “they’re not doing any harm.” There are “natural checks on their population — raccoons and foxes take them. They’re subject to a lot of pressure.”

Hugh Rafles, an anthropology professor at the New School in Manhattan, wrote an OpEd column in the New York Times last year, stating: “There’s a larger issue here. The real environmental problems faced by New York State are created not by birds but by people … Rather than eliminating swans, we should pay attention to their struggle to survive and what it can tell us about the state of our state.”

The bill to come before Mr. Cuomo says that “wildlife experts, rehabilitators and environmentalists do not unanimously agree that exterminating the mute swan population is justified. In addition, there is debate amongst such experts as to whether the planned eradication of the mute swan population is minimally beneficial to the ecosystem or to our environment.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the Department of Environmental Conservation to illustrate the necessity of eradicating this non-native species by demonstrating the actual damage to the environment or other species caused by mute swans.”

Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), a cosponsor of this bill and the earlier measure, commented last week: “I’m hopeful that this year the governor will sign the bill.” He added that considering its passage by “an overwhelming margin,” if there is a veto “there is the possibility” of a legislative override. That would require a two-thirds legislative vote.

Under the heading, “Tell Governor Cuomo: Save Our Swans,” on its website, GooseWatch NYC speaks of the two legislative votes “to put a stop” to the DEC’s plan and “protect this wrongfully vilified species of wildlife from slaughter, and we’re one more step to the bill becoming law. Our work is not done though. Governor Cuomo must now sign the bill (and not veto it again). The “revised” DEC plan “would be a death sentence for swans across the state. If you want to protect NY’s mute swans from destruction, please help us.”

Photo: A mute swan mother with her cygnets. Credit: Katharine Schroeder.

grossman_karl150 Karl Grossman’s syndicated “Suffolk Closeup” column is printed in the Shelter Island Reporter, a Times/Review Newsgroup publication.