When politics enter the world of wildlife biology, it never ends well

When politicians have a say in managing wildlife, it’s almost never is a good thing.

Take Pennsylvania, for example. Back about 10 years ago or so, Pennsylvania had more deer than it could handle. In short, deer were almost everywhere and hunters were happy. The problem was, the deer were eating just about everything, including farm crops, and farmers were paying the price.

When biologist Gary Alt proposed drastically reducing deer numbers by issuing a large number of antlerless deer permits, the hunters eagerly bought them and subsequently mowed deer down by the tens of thousands. Now that deer numbers are in line with the carrying capacity of the land on which they live, hunters are screaming that there are not enough deer.

So what did many of these hunters do? They blamed the Pennsylvania Game Commission of poor management and cried to their local politicians. The politicians were, of course, afraid of losing votes so they have kept the Pennsylvania Game Commission hostage for the last 17 years or so by not granting them a much-needed increase in the cost of a hunting license until they take steps to increase the number of deer available to hunters. You’d have to be totally naïve to think that listening to voters while ignoring biologists is a good way to manage a deer herd.

While the meddling is not exactly the same here in New York, a state senator from Queens is taking issue with the way the DEC is managing the increase in the number of mute swans in various areas of the state, including the Finger Lakes.

For those of you who don’t know, mute swans are large, non-native birds with an average adult weight of 20-25 pounds and, with a wing span of nearly seven feet, they are the largest birds in New York state. As anyone might guess, a bird this big eats a lot, up to four pounds of food a day, and therein lies the problem. According to information provided on the DEC’s website, the diet of mute swans consists of submerged aquatic vegetation found in water as deep as four feet, and they eat a variety of plant species, sometimes uprooting plants completely. And oftentimes, adult swans will uproot more plants than they actually consume.

Submerged aquatic vegetation plays an important role in aquatic ecosystems by providing both food and cover to a variety of vertebrate and invertebrate species. In turn, many species (e.g., fish) rely on animals that live in these beds of submerged vegetation for food. Thus, loss of this submerged vegetation caused by large flocks of feeding swans could have a detrimental impact on aquatic ecosystems.

Other potential problems include aggressive behavior toward people, displacement of native wildlife species, degradation of water quality, and potential hazards to aviation. While beautiful to behold, these swans are considered an invasive species and, according to biologists, they need to be controlled. The problem is the Queens senator doesn’t like the way the DEC is handling the problem.

Basically, the DEC’s plan doesn’t look to eliminate mute swan populations but rather to control them by limiting their range expansion and stabilizing their current population. The DEC’s plan was developed after using research and the latest available data. However, this isn’t good enough for some who believe that, after all, the swans aren’t as invasive of a species as some people believe.

Despite current trends, mute swans in New York have high reproductive potential and high annual survival rates, both of which could lead to significant population growth and range expansion in the future. To his credit, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law in 2016 that ordered the DEC to launch a plan that would keep mute swan populations under control and to document the scientific basis for future population projections.

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