New York’s swans may have been unaware that their goose was nearly cooked when the state announced a plan to eliminate them in a decade. But abandoning the swan population’s reduction raises a basic question about public pressure and legislative interference in science-based policy.
In a sense, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation picked the wrong creature to mess with earlier this year when it said it hoped to eradicate nonnative mute swans, a Eurasian species, by 2025. The D.E.C. reasoned that the swans have a negative effect on other wildlife, contribute to water pollution, and destroy aquatic vegetation. In addition, although the large birds are beautiful, they are often aggressive toward people and can present a risk to aircraft. A hunting season for swans was among the options for controlling their numbers.
Well, that was just about all many people could take, especially here on the East End, where opposition to a proposed deer-herd reduction by hired sharpshooters had animal activists already riled. The D.E.C. reported that it was deluged with more than 1,500 direct comments, 16,000 form letters, and 30,000 signatures on a variety of petitions from people upset by the swan’s elimination. Meanwhile, lawmakers got involved, presenting bills in the Albany Legislature demanding another look.
State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. were among those sponsoring measures that would tie the D.E.C.’s hands. Both the Senate and Assembly bills demanded that state scientists look again at mute swans and demonstrate “actual damage” to the environment. Sounds good, but we doubt that the state’s wildlife biologists had made their recommendation without ample consideration, even though the agency is understaffed and underfunded.
In response, Joe Martens, the D.E.C. commissioner, headed off the Legislature and has taken the swan-kill plan back for a second look. A new version is due in the spring and may include regional differences, such as leaving Long Island’s population alone but taking a harder line upstate, where negative impacts may be more pronounced.
While the reprieve may satisfy the swans’ many fans, it is an emotionally driven victory in decision-making that should really be based on the views of the professionals at the D.E.C. As with the collapse of the proposed deer cull here, affection for the photogenic species clouded the matter.
It is not surprising that the agency was attacked for its plan. However, it would be unfortunate if it abandoned a serious, dispassionate study of them — and other invasive species — simply because many people like the way swans look. What lawmakers should do is provide more funding for the D.E.C. and the environment; what they should not do is micromanage science.