03/25/2014 02:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2014

Murdering Swans

What's with the plan of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to slaughter all 2,200 mute swans -- those beautiful, elegant, graceful birds -- in the state?

Hands down, it's about the dumbest thing the DEC has ever come up with.

"It is real stupid," says Larry Penny, for 28 years the director of natural resources and environmental preservation in East Hampton, NY and among the greatest Long Island naturalists. The DEC claims it needs to kill the swans because they're an "invasive" species. "Nonsense," says Penny. They were brought to North America from Europe after the Civil War and "they're not doing any harm." Also, there "are natural checks on their population--raccoons and foxes take them. They're subject to a lot of pressure," says Penny.

Hugh Rafles, anthropology professor at The New School in an op-ed prominently featured in the New York Times, "Speaking Up for the Mute Swan," wrote:

There's a larger issue here. The real environmental problems faced by New York State are created not by birds, but by people. In the nearly 150 years that the mute swan has been among us, it has witnessed a radical decline in the extent of the state's wildlife habitat, and in the quality of its waters and soil.
Because of their limited diet, mute swans are a sentinel species, concentrating contaminants in their livers and revealing the presence of chemical toxicities in fresh water. Rather than eliminating swans, we should pay attention to their struggle to survive and what it can tell us about the state of our state.

From the celebration of mute swans in Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky (a ballet I once was lucky to see at the Bolshoi) to the ballet of mute swans gliding on Long Island ponds and bays -- in the summer leading a line of signets -- they represent lovely creatures.

The DEC grew out of the New York State Conservation Department, established in 1911, which, in turn, replaced the Fisheries, Game and Forest Commission, formed in 1895 -- both mainly involved in overseeing hunting. The legislation creating DEC was signed into law on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, reflecting the upsurge of environmental consciousness in the state and the U.S. in the 1960s. "DEC opened its doors on July 1, 1970 and immediately began to wrestle with the urgent problems of the day -- such as pesticides, mercury pollution, solid waste, and recreational access," it says on its website.

The outrageous swan plan isn't the only wrong-headed move by DEC in recent times; for example, last year it issued a report on pollution from the Long Island Compost facility in Yaphank that stated: "This investigation points to the need to modify the operation practices at these facilities in order to prevent such occurrence." Yet months later DEC rubber-stamped a five-year permit renewal for the 50-acre Sand Land operation in Noyac, where comparable production of mulch is going on. Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken and Southampton Town asked DEC to require monitoring wells be installed to check on any Sand Land pollution as a permit condition. DEC ignored this, said Bob DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, speaking recently before the Noyac Civic Council. "A disconnect!" he said. He declared: "The DEC has a lot of problems. It's incapable of doing a lot of things."

There have been some terrific people at DEC. Tony Taormina, long its Long Island-based director of marine resources, was an extraordinary environmental watchdog, a crusader against DDT and key in the 1970s to the enacting of state laws protecting wetlands. But, overall, says Penny, the DEC has been "a mixed bag." It's "been generally pretty good," but "they have so much on their plate. Their problem is they never have enough staff." And, DEC has trouble "finishing things."

Fortunately, the DEC scheme to eradicate mute swans will not be moving ahead right away. There has been, rightfully, a public and official uproar. DEC admits it has received over 1,500 comments from individuals and organizations, and 16,000 form letters overwhelmingly opposed to the scheme and petitions with 30,000 signatures against it.

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor is co-sponsoring legislation requiring a moratorium on the plan and DEC to prove the swans cause "actual damage to the environment or other species." State Senator Kenneth LaValle of Port Jefferson has introduced his own bill for a moratorium and "independent study" of DEC's justification.

DEC Commissioner Joe Martens now says there will soon be "a revised plan to seek to balance the conflicting views about management of mute swans in New York." He and the DEC should pack it in now -- and forget about murdering swans.