Suffolk Closeup: Stop the swan slaughter

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

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation just can’t let go of its outrageous plan to go after the 2,200 mute swans in the state. Most of these beautiful and graceful birds, some 1,600, are here on Long Island.

The DEC advanced a plan to slaughter the elegant birds last year claiming they were an “invasive” species.

The reaction to the scheme from the public, environmentalists and members of the New York State Legislature was loud and intense.

“Real stupid” were the words Larry Penny, a Long Island naturalist and long-time East Hampton Town director of natural resources and environmental preservation. As to swans being “invasive,” he had one word: “Nonsense.”

They were brought to North America from Europe after the Civil War and “they’re not doing any harm,” Mr. Penny emphasized. Also, there “are natural checks on their population — raccoons and foxes take them. They’re subject to a lot of pressure.”

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.(I-Sag Harbor), whose district includes Shelter Island, co-sponsored a measure demanding a moratorium on the plan and for the DEC to prove the swans cause “actual damage to the environment or other species.” It passed the New York State Legislature overwhelmingly.

“My office has not received one report in all my years in office that the mute swan is a nuisance or an environmental problem,” Mr. Thiele said.

The DEC recently backed off on its kill-the-swans plan, but only somewhat. “Complete elimination of mute swans from New York is not a viable option, given the expressed public opinions associated with these birds,” the state agency announced. In a report on the public comments it received on its plan, the DEC said: “Tens of thousands of individuals and organizations provided input in the form of emails, letters … and signatures on various petitions.”

But it made clear that it is still on the warpath against the swans.

The DEC has come up with a “revised” plan to destroy not all but most of the swans in New York State, bringing the total population down to 800. And this would be done mainly but not always by “nonlethal methods.” These would include clipping the wings of swans and “addling” their eggs so they don’t hatch.

The organization Goose Watch has declared that “the revised plan does not go nearly far enough in protecting mute swans, and we oppose its implementation.” It would cause swans to “remain threatened across the state.”

Moreover, Goose Watch says that “the DEC’s plan to drastically reduce the state’s mute swan population continues to rely on outdated and immaterial research. New studies are needed to justify any control or killing. We remain strongly opposed to the designation of mute swans as an invasive species, a subjective determination, and we remain concerned with the DEC’s objectives to completely eliminate free-ranging mute swans from New York State.”

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who this year became chairman of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, states in a letter to the DEC that the revised plan “appears to disregard the Legislature’s key requests” in the bill passed last year. This includes not providing “compelling scientific information as to why such an aggressive management strategy is being pursued.”

Mr. Englebright, a scientist who has taught geology at Stony Brook University for many years, said the “specific threats cited in the revised Management Plan are not supported with scientific evidence. In cases where information is provided, it is often outdated or overstated. For example, the statement ‘Swan feces contain especially high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, so the presence of large flocks at certain times could impair the use of waters for drinking, swimming or shell fishing’ is justified by a single study conducted almost 40 years ago that included only 44 birds, some of which were Canada geese.”

The bureaucratically unbending attitude of the DEC is apparent in its responses to criticisms of its plan contained in its report on public comments. You can see the report—and the stubborn DEC responses online at

Perhaps the state Legislature might pass a bill this year calling for the reduction by 15 percent in the DEC budget if it persists in going after swans. That surely will get the DEC’s attention, and might cause it to drop its dumb plan and do better things with our tax dollars.