Swan supporters get backing from big guns

Guitarist Slash of Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver. Talk-show host Montel Williams. Photographer Nigel Barker of “America’s Next Top Model.” Delaware state Rep. Gerald Hocker. Humane Society of the United States Senior Vice President Dr. John Grandy.

It’s an unlikely list of allies, but it’s a partial list of those who have come forward thus far to publicly support a moratorium on the killing of mute swans on Delmarva, where the focus in recent weeks has been on efforts to obtain a moratorium in Delaware, after the killing of a pair of mute swans on White’s Creek by state wildlife staff.

The Web site at SaveMuteSwans.org now supports moratorium efforts, with a new appeal to Delaware Gov. Jack Markell to stop lethal population control methods for mute swans in the state.

The site offers not only information on the species and the efforts to preserve them but a petition for supporters to sign – one that the supporters hope will take a temporary moratorium on the practice to a permanent one that will include “the humane and enlightened management these animals deserve,” according to Grandy.

The new Delaware site was unveiled this week at a meeting of swan supporters in a Millville home along the banks of White’s Creek, where Grandy met with a group of about a dozen local residents who want the swans to be kept safe.

“Save Our Swans” (SOS) read the shirt worn by Susan Ritter, who has been spearheading efforts toward a moratorium after the pair of swans was killed with shotguns on Jan. 10.

Ritter plans to sell the shirts – whose design depicts the curving necks of the swans as those capital S’s – as part of an effort to raise funds that will go into an escrow account to support bringing one or two pairs of the birds back to White’s Creek.

Grandy met with the group on Feb. 18 – the date he had hoped to meet with DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara and Division of Fish & Wildlife officials. Grandy said O’Mara had been unable to meet with him until sometime in March but had agreed to a temporary moratorium on the killing of mute swans until that meeting can be held.

Joining Grandy at the meeting was Hocker, who had previously supported the permit that allowed a pair of collared swans to remain on White’s Creek. That pair is currently living in the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge, while the second pair that was brought in last summer from Sea Colony was killed by Fish & Wildlife last month.

Hocker again supporting swan safety

Hocker (R-38th) told the swan supporters last week that those deaths didn’t really need to happen.

“If I had known there were two other swans I hadn’t been told about, they would have been saved – absolutely,” said Hocker, acknowledging that DNREC staff had killed the birds, in part, because the agreement that permitted the other pair had called for any others to be euthanized.

“I stopped DNREC from killing the two that were banded,” he said. “The neighbor is the only reason they were killed,” he added. “DNREC had so many complaints with that neighbor that they decided to go out and put an end to it.”

Like many of the swans who have lived on White’s Creek since the late 1990s, the pair that was released last summer and killed in January were hatched at Sea Colony, from swans that had also become pets in that community.

Permit-holder Gary Clevenger had been among property owners bringing in the original pair to control the Canada goose population there, and later in White’s Creek.

“I already had two Canada geese in my canal this morning,” lamented Ritter.

Hocker acknowledged on Feb. 18 that one of the chief reasons mute swans are unwelcome in Delaware is because they are believed to tear up roots of aquatic vegetation and destroy marshlands.

“They don’t. Snow geese do,” Grandy argued of the relative destructive abilities of the birds, the latter of which is legal to hunt in Delaware but is found in much larger numbers during migration periods. Canada geese are likewise known to migrate through the area in large numbers, and some of the birds have even taken to overwintering here.

“One propeller from an outboard motor will do more damage running around for an hour than the swans do in half a year,” Grandy also pointed out. “It’s not an uncommon issue,” he added. “But, frankly, if you only have 40 swans, you don’t have an issue.”

Maryland’s control program also target of efforts

Delaware currently has an estimated 40 mute swans across the entire state, which Fish & Wildlife officials have argued is a population that could spiral out of control, as a few dozen that lived in Maryland did when that population reached about 3,500 over the course of more than 25 years.

“Of course they eat vegetation,” Grandy said. “But you can’t turn the clock back 5,000 years here either, to when there weren’t people.”

Lethal control efforts in Maryland are estimated to have brought that state’s population of mute swans down from thousands to less than 500.

“Maryland said there was no appreciable damage from 500 swans,” Grandy pointed out, noting that the latest estimates on their numbers have them down to about 250 to 300. “You barely see them anymore,” he said.

Grandy has labeled ongoing efforts to eliminate mute swans as a “scapegoating” effort aiming to place blame for damage to the bay on the birds and take focus away from pollution and other human-caused factors.

Ritter also suggested that those who considered the way the two White’s Creek swans were killed to be “shameful” would be appalled by the method used in Maryland, which involves severing their necks with a device that resembles a pair of bolt-cutters.

“I’m a horse person. I don’t really care about anything else,” Ritter said. “But when I found out these swans were killed like this, I was just sickened. They have been here since the 1800s. They’re well-integrated into the ecosystem. They cause less damage than boat propellers. They need a non-lethal method of control.”

The lethal control methods in Maryland have garnered considerable attention and spurred Grandy to appeal to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley for a moratorium there.

The now-joint Web site for the effort brought the involvement of several celebrities, including Slash – who personally authored a letter to O’Malley appealing for an end to the killing of the mute swans there, calling it “brutal,” and “random and cruel.”

“The few swans left in the Chesapeake are not damaging the environment, and should therefore be left to live,” wrote Williams in a similar letter.

Extended moratorium, committee being sought

Hocker said he is hoping to get the current temporary moratorium in Delaware extended to at least a year, as well as to have a committee formed that can study the issue and help create a new policy on population control for the swans.

“Right now, if you want swans on White’s Creek without a change in regulations, you can only do it with a permit and tagging them,” he noted.

Grandy said he hopes such a committee will be able to handle any legitimate problems with mute swans in the future, including investigating complaints, controlling them in fenced areas where need be and oiling eggs to prevent them from hatching.

Hocker said last week that he wanted to send a copy of the group’s petition to DNREC officials as soon as possible, “so they can change the policy before I have to legislate it.”

“With enough letters to the governor and the Secretary of DNREC, and enough media attention, I think this will get changed quick,” said Hocker.

“I feel we may be able to do this very quick,” he reiterated, saying he hoped to have state Sen. George Howard Bunting (D-20th) sign on to a letter he planned to author on the subject. “Then you’re talking about two [political] parties. And we can get them to extend the moratorium for a year and form a committee.”

Grandy encouraged the group of supporters to continue their efforts.

“You all are the nucleus of this effort,” he said. “I can be an arrow in your quiver – maybe two.”

Bruce Wolford, who routinely fed the swans from his back yard overlooking the creek, expressed confidence in what the grassroots group can accomplish.

“A big fire can start with one little spark,” he said.

For more information on the efforts to change Delaware’s policy on mute swans, visit the informational Web site at SaveMuteSwans.org.