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Suffolk Closeup: Leave the swans alone

The stately swans that glide on the Peconic River in Riverhead might be birds of the past if the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation gets its way.

2015_1024_suffolk_closeup_grossmanDespite its overwhelming passage in the State Legislature, Governor Andrew Cuomo has vetoed a measure that would have blocked the DEC’s outrageous plan to go after the 2,200 mute swans in the state. Most of these beautiful birds — some 1,600 — are here on Long Island.

“I’m very disappointed in the governor’s veto of the mute swan legislation. The so-called management plan on the DEC, which still includes the destruction of these beautiful creatures, is way off base,” says State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor, a co-sponsor of the measure. He calls the DEC’s “plan…a solution in search of a problem.”

And by the governor issuing a “late veto” with there being no further meetings of the State Legislature scheduled in 2015, this “makes an override unlikely,” he said.

“Efforts to stop the DEC must be continued,” declared Mr. Thiele. “The fight should be renewed as soon as the session begins in January.”

Other state lawmakers were also outraged.

“Leave the swans alone. That should be the policy,” commented Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz of Brooklyn, another sponsor of the measure, after the veto.

Yet another sponsor, Senator Tony Avella of Queens, is quoted in the New York Times as saying he thinks there is “something else going on here,” that “this has nothing to do with the mute swans. Somebody who has real political influence doesn’t like them, in my opinion.”

That might seem to be a wild charge. But considering the testimony on how New York State government at its top really operates, given in recent weeks at the corruption trials of former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former State Senate Leader Dean Skelos, it might not be so wild after all.

Mr. Cuomo claimed in his veto message that he was rejecting the measure—as he had a similar bill last year—because the DEC altered its original plan for mute swans.

The initial DEC plan involved going out and outright slaughtering the elegant birds.

But there was a huge public uproar over that—including nearly 8,000 objections filed by people with the DEC—and the agency made changes.

But the plan still involves, emphasizes David Karopkin, founder and director of GoosewatchNYC, the DEC seeking “population reduction” of swans in the state, cutting back their number to 800, with such measures as “mutilation”—doing “wing pinioning of free-living swans” making it impossible for them to fly—and “addling” their eggs so they don’t hatch.

Said Mr. Karopkin, an attorney: “We will continue to push back against any plan to eliminate mute swans…Furthermore, we will continue to advocate for total transparency because the people of New York have every right to know what our government is doing in our name with respect to wildlife management.”

The bill Mr. Cuomo vetoed on November 21 would have, among other things, required DEC to prove mute swans cause “actual damage to the environment or other species.” The DEC has said it is going after mute swans because they are an “invasive species” and attack other wildlife.

“Real stupid” are the words Larry Penny, a noted Long Island naturalist and former director of the East Hampton Town Department of Environmental Protection, uses to describe the DEC plan. As to swans being “invasive,” he says, “Nonsense.” 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.”

Hugh Rafles, an anthropology professor at The New School in Manhattan, in an op-ed column in the New York Times headed “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…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.”

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright of Setauket, himself a scientist, a geologist who long taught at Stony Brook University, and chairs the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, says the “specific threats” that the DEC claims mute swans pose “are not supported with scientific evidence.” In its plan, “in cases where information is provided it is often outdated or overstated. For example, the statement ‘Swan feces contain especially high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, so the presence of large flocks at certain times could impair the use of waters for drinking, swimming or shell fishing’ is justified by a single study conducted almost forty years ago that included only 44 birds some of which were Canada geese.”

When the State Legislature reconvenes in January, it should quickly and strongly override Mr. Cuomo’s veto of the mute swan measure.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.

Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.