Swan supporters aim to change state policy

A group of residents along White’s Creek in Millville and Ocean View met this week to recall the history of mute swans along the creek and the killing of a pair of the swans last month by state Fish & Wildlife employees, and to make a plan they hope will offer a way forward for both the swans and state policy.

“It’s a chance for people to express their feelings, get over their frustrations and express that, then say what is next,” said Susan Ritter, who helped organize the afternoon meeting on Super Bowl Sunday.

Ritter said she has been in touch with John Grandy – senior vice president for Wildlife & Habitat Protection for the Humane Society of the United States, who also has a home in Bethany Beach – about the plight of the mute swans, which are considered a non-native species by the State of Delaware and other Mid-Atlantic states and have been marked for extermination on that basis.

Grandy, she said, has already fought for and obtained a moratorium on the killing of mute swans on the Chesapeake Bay from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and has offered to meet with Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) and Fish & Wildlife officials about establishing a population control policy for the birds that would include non-lethal methods of preventing their reproduction, such as the oiling of their eggs.

In the meantime, Ritter said she and her husband, Rick, are hoping that DNREC will re-issue a permit for a pair of mute swans to live on White’s Creek, where residents had come to consider the swans pets.

The permit was originally issued to Gary Clevenger, who – along with other residents of the creek’s neighboring communities – had brought the mute swans in as a way to discourage Canada geese from taking up residence.

“When we first got the swans, we paid $50 for them, and we didn’t need any sort of permit,” Clevenger noted on Feb. 6. He said the original swans they purchased were brought in to Sea Colony in 1990 or 1991, as goose control, after they were on a waiting list for a year to get them.

Clevenger said it was five years before those swans hatched babies, called cygnets, due to predation by turtles and blue herons. Those cygnets were subsequently moved to new ponds, including two brought to Clevenger’s White’s Creek home, where he kept them in a backyard fence for two weeks before releasing them onto the creek – again, as a goose deterrent.

Clevenger said he took the birds to the veterinarian and created an account at Southern States through which neighbors could get feed for the swans, even if he was out of town.

But one of Clevenger’s neighbors eventually took exception to the swans’ presence, calling DNREC to report damage to his property.

“I offered to pay for any damage done,” Clevenger said, “and he came after me with a baseball bat.”

Clevenger said a neighbor was soon told DNREC was coming to euthanize the swans.

“I told them, ‘You’re not getting them,’” Clevenger recalled. State Rep. Gerald Hocker eventually intervened, Clevenger said, and DNREC agreed to issue Clevenger a permit to keep the swans.

“We caught them. It took six guys five hours to catch them. They were banded and collared, though one [collar] was really too tight,” Clevenger recalled, noting that he had suggested the collars to DNREC after getting information from the State of New York.

In getting the permit, Clevenger said, he agreed that he would be responsible for the swans and take care of them, and that he would oil any eggs they laid, to prevent them hatching, or would call DNREC to oil the eggs if he could not.

Then, in January, came another claim of damage by the swans. Ritter said the claim was that the swans had damaged the door to a vehicle and had dug up the front lawn of Clevenger’s neighbor’s home, but she argued that the amount of damage to the vehicle claimed seemed excessive and noted that the front yard in question is, in fact, covered with gravel.

Ritter questioned whether DNREC officials had even tried to verify the claims of damage, since a cursory check would have turned up questions about the gravel yard.

“He got DNREC to go after Gary for him,” one member of the impromptu swan support group suggested on Sunday. “It’s nothing but a grudge that caused this. … Gary made an offer to pay for any damage, but that wasn’t good enough.”

Fish & Wildlife officials said they told Clevenger the collared adults could remain on White’s Creek, under his permit, but the three cygnets they had at that time would have to be killed to prevent further reproduction. Shortly thereafter, the cygnets disappeared. And, eventually, the adults disappeared, too.

Clevenger said he ran an ad in a local newspaper, offering a $1,000 reward for the adult birds’ return. He said a hunter subsequently called to tell him that the collared birds had been spotted living on the Little Assawoman Bay, where they have remained to this day.

A second pair of adult mute swans apparently moved into White’s Creek about the same time. DNREC officials now suspect they chased off the collared pair.

“DNREC was told we had two more,” Clevenger said, adding that he had told officials that he hadn’t brought in the second pair.

“I feel bad, because telling DNREC that let them know these two weren’t mine,” he said with regret in the wake of that pair’s death by shotgun last month.

Neighbors troubled by control policy

The swan supporters this week said they are hoping that, through their own efforts and with Grandy’s aid, they can persuade state officials to change their policy on the control of mute swans.

“It’s a failed policy,” they said repeatedly on Feb. 6, arguing that the estimated 40 mute swans in Delaware today aren’t a problem that requires a lethal remedy.

Some said their research had turned up indications of mute swans being in Delaware in the 1800s – earlier than many of their ancestors called the United States home – and that starving settlers in the 1700s had even reported receiving swan legs as food from Native Americans who took them to the Jamestown settlement after they were marooned on the coast.

Ritter said she took particular umbrage with how the uncollared adult swans were “euthanized.” She said she had previously asked Fish & Wildlife employees to call her if action was to be taken against the swans, because she had two contacts who have permits to keep exotic birds and who were willing humanely trap and take them away, if needed. That wasn’t what happened, she said.

“I saw the trucks, and I thought they were using the boat ramp. Then I heard the shotguns,” she recalled. “After the swans were collared, the other swans were still being fed,” she added. “I knew they weren’t the original ones. If I had known what was going on, I would have run out in my PJs.”

Ritter said she had been assured that Fish & Wildlife staff had “no intent to come down, that it was neighbor against neighbor and they just wished it would go away.”

The next thing she heard from that staffer, Ritter said, was when she called after the swans were shot.

“He said, ‘We had a complaint.’”

“He lied to you,” neighbor Bruce Wolford asserted of what Ritter had been told about DNREC’s intentions.

“What do you mean, you ‘euthanized’ the swans?” she said she had asked that staffer. “‘We went out and shot them, because that was the only humane way to euthanize them,’” she said she was told.

“He shot them,” she said of that staffer. “He said, ‘We got a complaint. Something had to be done.’”

Neighbors said they were even more horrified to learn that marine police had spent hours herding the swans toward the three Fish & Wildlife staffers waiting, armed, in a second boat.

Ritter said she has been unable to get a copy of the final report on the claims of damage by the swans.

Residents aim to bring swans back to White’s Creek

Now, unable to bring back the pair of swans that were killed, the neighbors say they are looking for the State of Delaware to shift to non-lethal ways to conserve the birds but limit their reproduction, such as with the oiling of eggs, which Clevenger said Fish & Wildlife staffers had offered to do if he was unable.

Ritter said Fish & Wildlife staff had acknowledged that the situation hadn’t been handled as well as it might have been.

“He assured me, in hindsight, it could have been handled differently,” she said of former Fish & Wildlife Director Pat Emory, who is now working in public relations for the department.

“We want Gerald [Hocker] on our side, in case we need legislation,” they noted ahead of an expected Presidents Day weekend meeting between Grandy and DNREC officials. (Hocker was invited to the Feb. 6 meeting but had a prior engagement.)

That meeting between Grandy and DNREC is what brought the neighbors together last weekend, as they aimed to decide what kind of policy changes they would like from the state.

“We want them to let us have the swans back,” several said.

“And protect them,” one added.

Rick Ritter said his discussions with Fish & Wildlife’s Rob Hossler led him to believe that the neighbors might be permitted to bring back the two collared swans, under a permit the Ritters could obtain, provided they were pinioned to keep them from flying away again and prevented from reproducing.

But the neighbors say they’d prefer to have four swans in total – the two collared ones and another pair, to replace the ones Fish & Wildlife shot.

“Yes, we want four,” said hostess Nancy Santos.

“We also want them to guarantee they will warn us before they come out after the swans in the future,” another neighbor said.

“We need a short-term plan, but also to plan for the long term,” said Santos. “If the State of Delaware wants to exterminate mute swans, I think we need to stand against that.”

Susan Ritter said Grandy plans to meet with the neighbors after his meeting with DNREC officials, at which he hopes to set out the scientific information that will show mute swans are really not invasive, and to urge conservation and non-lethal population-control methods.

“We’re going to have to compromise,” Susan Ritter said, suggesting the neighbors would have to ensure the swans did not hatch any eggs. “Last spring, the nor’easters took care of that,” she noted, when nests were flooded and one clutch of eggs never hatched.

Clevenger said he was also concerned about the terms under which he was issued the permit to keep the swans, requiring him to be legally liable for any damage or injury they caused.

“I would ask to remove that clause,” he advised the neighbors as he prepared to move to outside Delaware this week.

The group members said they would look into establishing an umbrella policy under which the various communities, or a group of swan supporters, could pay for their upkeep and maintain responsibility for them.

But their concern extended beyond the two or four swans they hope to bring back to the creek and into what the state’s policy on mute swans will be in the future. Their hopes are to prevent the swans from being injured or killed by policy or as a result of neighborhood disputes.

“I was told he had been shooting at them with a slingshot,” Clevenger said of his neighbor. Susan Ritter said the female swan had been seen with blood on her after that reported incident, prior to being shot by Fish & Wildlife.

“It’s going to be a fight,” concluded Rick Ritter of their efforts to take over Clevenger’s permit for the two collared swans, which DNREC had subsequently pulled. “We’re not going to back off.”

Susan Ritter said she plans to start a petition drive, to determine which of the neighbors favor protecting the swans and to show their support to state officials.

“Maryland turned him down flat,” she noted of Grandy’s initial efforts with the Maryland legislature before that state’s governor approved a moratorium. “Let’s thumb our noses at Maryland. We’re the First State, and we can be first in this.”