Recently the state environmental department announced plans to control an introduced species, which is on the verge of becoming seriously invasive. In the areas where it’s currently established itself, it caused serious damage wetland and aquatic plants, has displaced – and often attacks – native species, created public health hazards, and injuries to the public. Once confined to a relatively small area of the state in limited numbers, over the past few years it has spread to new areas, and numbers are increasing. The state plans to reduce this population in the wild to zero over the next ten years. Pretty open and shut, right? Not really, since all such plans have a “public comment period” attached to them, and there’s a good percentage of people against it.
Why are they against it? Because it’s … pretty. This is the species:
Mute swans are most numerous on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley, but they have expanded their range in recent years especially around Lake Ontario. Mute swans can cause a variety of problems, including aggressive behavior towards people, destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, displacement of native wildlife species, degradation of water quality, and potential hazards to aviation. ….
Mute swans are a non-native, invasive species first brought to this country from Europe in the late 1800s for their aesthetic value. Initially introduced in New York’s lower Hudson Valley and Long Island, mute swans were kept by breeders as domestics on the ponds of private estates. The release of domestic swans into the wild on Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley has led to well established populations in those areas. The largest known releases occurred from 1910-1912 and consisted of about 500 birds.
By 1993, New York’s mute swan population had increased to about 2,000. The population peaked at more than 2,800 birds in 2002 and is currently estimated at about 2,200 birds statewide. The largest numbers of swans still occur on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley, but a rapidly increasing population has taken hold in the Lake Ontario region (see the map of mute swan breeding locations in New York).
This has created controversy with rather loud cries from those who are against it:
That’s one way of looking at it. “We have so little opportunity to experience wildlife in New York City,” said David Karopkin, director of animal advocacy group GooseWatch NYC, “and now they’re targeting the most beautiful animals that we do have. The fact of the matter is, they’re part of our community.”
As one Queens resident told the New York Times, “If they were born here, they should be considered native by now.” And some think the swans’ heritage is being held arbitrarily against them. “If Mute Swans were native to North America, they would not be viewed negatively by state wildlife agencies,” said ornithologist Don Heintzelman, an author of bird-watching field guides who is working with Friends of Animals, a New York-based animal advocacy group, to oppose the plan.
In other words, it’s pretty, it’s visible, and people feel an attachment towards them. There’s also the “animal rights” factor in this as well. What do you notice? It’s an emotional argument, not a scientific one. It’s why I often find myself in conflicts with various “environmental activist” groups. I happen to think swans are pretty as well. I think they look nice in a captive and controlled situation like a city park. But I’m also trained as an environmental biologist and I’ve done quite a bit of work with invasive species. When they’re not in that controlled situation, they don’t belong, and yes, I do view them negatively. To answer the ornithologist, yes, if they were native, wildlife agencies wouldn’t view them negatively, but they aren’t. There aren’t any naturalization procedures for them like we have for human immigrants. There also happen to be two native species of swan, the Trumpeter and the Tundra, and the Trumpeter swan is a species of concern because it has been extirpated across much of its original range.
Many of the species of great concern were brought here because someone thought they were “pretty,” or decided they were “useful.” Garlic mustard is an example of one that was brought in as a garden herb, but in the wild creates serious problems. Lionfish were “pretty” aquarium fish, but in the Atlantic Ocean? They’re top predators who are wiping out many native fish species. Golden clams and Eurasian milfoil were “pretty” and “useful” aquarium species, except that in the wild they destroy native lakes. All of them are costing huge sums of money to try to remove them or minimize the damage.
The furor over New York’s plan to remove all wild Mute Swans is an example of what happens when feelings and beliefs about nature are based around what has been seen in a controlled and confined environment. If you’ve only been to zoos and parks, and watched various nature shows on television, you have an opinion of “what it is” and “what’s right” based on those experiences. All of those experiences serve a valuable purpose in getting people interested in the environment, and helping to protect it. The down side of it is that it also can cause people to act in ways that don’t protect it, or come to a mistaken belief that “real nature” is like it was on the show or in the park. I’ve got a large store of tales about people who have found that out the hard way, and it’s an ever-growing one. People are are basing their opposition on what “they know” about the Mute Swan. As I said, I like them too in their place. Unlike the opponents, I realize that their place is not “out in the wild” in this state. It’s not good for the environment and they have to go. If that hurts your feelings, so be it, but “feelings” aren’t always going to mean protecting the environment. That’s because nature is not a park or a zoo.