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Issues Of The Environment: Counterpoint To Michigan's Mute Swan Management Plan

Mute Swan
Wikipedia Media Commons

Anytime a governmental unit authorizes lethal measures as a way to control animal population, there are those in the human population that get upset.  Such is the case of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources management plan for Mute Swans in Michigan.  On last week’s “Issues of the Environment,” David Fair discussed the state action plan with Holly Vaughn of the Michigan DNR.  This week, he talks with John Griffin, Director of Urban Wildlife at The Humane Society of the United States, for an alternative viewpoint.  


   *   Mute swans, a non-native species introduced from Europe, have become a concern for the trumpeter swan (which is native and a state-threatened species).  In recent years, Trumpeter swans have made a comeback, however, the mute swan population has is significantly larger and they are competing for resources.

   *  Michigan-based group, “Save Our Swans,” ardently opposes lethal measures, and disputes MDNR research and methodology. 

   *  The Humane Society of the United States opposes the Michigan management plan and seeks to work with the MDNR to find alternatives.  As outlined in the 2012 letter below, the organization has been working on the issue for years. 

Humane Society
Credit Wikipedia Media Commons /
Humane Society of the United States Logo

July 11, 2012

Dr. Russ Mason


Department of Natural Resources

Wildlife Division

Mason Bldg, Fourth Floor

P.O. Box 30444

Lansing, MI 48909-7944

Sent via electronic transmission 

Dear Dr. Mason:

On behalf of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and our 415,000 Michigan members, and Karen Stamper, and the members of the Michigan Save Our Swans Committee, I thank you for our recent meeting on the status and management of free ranging mute swans in the state of Michigan.  We appreciated the opportunity to present our proposal to you, and at your request, I am summarizing the points we made in our meeting and detailing the resultant proposal via this letter. 

Initially I should note that The HSUS is pleased to enter into this dialog with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) over the proper and sustained management of free ranging naturalized mute swans in Michigan.  We have worked together with Michigan DNR for many years on similar management issues and a cooperative management program with respect to (resident) Canada geese in Michigan.  We are certain that the lessons we have learned and the cooperative approach that our two agencies have taken will be beneficial to developing a comprehensive and humane management program for naturalized mute swans in Michigan. 

As you know, many residents of Michigan are justly furious over the recent killings of numerous naturalized free-ranging mute swans. Indeed, they have been as upset by the callous and brutal nature of the killings as they are with the apparent procedural inadequacies and lack of adequate public notice and involvement that has accompanied issuance of swan killing permits in local districts.  In addition, another complicating factor is the semi-owned status that some of these birds have in more heavily urbanized waters. Moreover, there are significant biological questions regarding the justifications which have been put forth by DNR personnel to justify the killing of these magnificent birds. All of these matters need to be thoroughly addressed in the preparation of a comprehensive plan. 

In that light and with that background, we have assiduously examined all of the documents we could acquire describing, explaining and justifying the so called Mute Swan "Conservation Order," as embellished by the Mute Swan Management and Control Program Policy and Procedures document (hereinafter "Program Policy document").  Neither document provides more than summary assertions as to the presumably negative activities or behaviors attributed to free-ranging mute swans that could justify killing individual swans, much less the wholesale destruction of I O's of thousands envisioned in the Order or Program Policy. Indeed, there are no supporting data or case studies that suggest the need for mass killing. There are no benchmarks or baseline data against which to measure results, and there seem to be no concrete objectives short of unjustified lethal population reduction.  Taken together the two documents are not a professional management plan at all-they are just a blueprint for large scale killing of mute swans. 

We are also particularly concerned that Program Policy document sets an arbitrary and unjustified numerical population goal for mute swans. In our experience, it is not practical or prudent to establish a specific population threshold number at which to attempt to manage the mute swan population. More detailed and costly survey protocols would need to be developed and it would be difficult to put in context the environmental impacts or lack thereof of local mute swan populations relative to a single specified statewide population number. The requisite removal of "excess" swans exceeding a specific population number could become an expensive, undesirable annual management pr.actice that would result in more swans being euthanized in the long term. Also, once swan numbers exceeded a designated threshold, controversial decisions would need to be made on which swans are removed from the population. It is, we believe, far more prudent and biologically defensible to adopt an impact based approach to dealing with alleged problems caused by mute swans whereby potential problems are reported, evaluated and, if verified, solved using the most humane and least harmful methodology available. 

Moreover, there is no mention of the responsibilities and duties that DNR has to manage mute swans for the benefit of Michigan's citizens.  DNR has responsibility for managing all wild animals in the State whether migratory or resident and whether native or introduced, and all are the property of the people of the State. There are more than 35,000 lakes and ponds in Michigan and the DNR plan suggests that 2000 to 3000 swans would remain at the end of the proposed 18-year population reduction.  Yet there is no suggestion as to where swans would remain and how stewardship and proper management would be provided.  In short, any plan for addressing the issue of free-ranging mute swans in Michigan should recognize that mute swans have high aesthetic value and provide public enjoyment which needs to be considered and accommodated to the extent feasible in the context of DNR's broader resource management and environmental responsibilities. 

Finally, there are no mechanisms for involving concerned citizens in non-lethal and humane solutions to perceived problems that may be attributed to free-ranging and naturalized mute swans. Our experience shows that this could be a critical component of garnering citizen support and cooperation, and is a necessary part of an integrated and publicly supported management plan. 

Combining the above concerns and elements into a proposal, as you requested, we propose as a starting point:

1.         That Michigan DNR immediately suspend the Wildlife Division Mute Swan Management and Control Program Policy and Procedures and associated Conservation Order and begin immediately to revise and update the document, because (as suggested herein) revision is critically needed now. Such immediate revision is contemplated at the top of page 2 of the Program Policy.

2.         That Michigan DNR immediately appoint local mute swan advisory committees and a statewide mute swan advisory committee, consisting of Michigan Humane Society, the Michigan Save Our Swans Committee and The Humane Society of the United States, among others, to advise on non-lethal management options, and liaise with DNR personnel in development of a Comprehensive Mute Swan Stewardship and Management Plan.  We propose that the current Program Policy document be replaced with a balanced Comprehensive Mute Swan Stewardship and Management Plan that would deal comprehensively with the challenges and benefits surrounding free-ranging naturalized mute swans in Michigan.

3.         That Michigan DNR declare a voluntary moratorium on the lethal control of free-ranging mute swans except in emergency situations, that would last at least until a Comprehensive Mute Swan Stewardship and Management Plan is completed.

With that as an initial draft proposal, we suggest that specific management objectives could include:

•         Educate the public and increase the public's awareness of mute swans to include their aesthetic value; and potential negative impacts on aquatic and wetland ecosystems, vulnerable species of wildlife, and public safety and private property. Increase public recognition, enjoyment and appreciation of mute swans and natural wetland habitats, and provide enlightened stewardship for both.

•           Manage the population of free-ranging mute swans in Michigan to minimize negative ecological impacts to relatively natural aquatic and wetland habitats and vulnerable water birds and other wildlife species. Use non-lethal controls to achieve management goals wherever possible.

•           Manage mute swan population growth and range expansion in suburbanized habitat and lakes and ponds with adjacent human habitation in association and cooperation with the local adjacent human population.

•          Manage mute swan population growth and range expansion in suburbanized habitat and lakes and ponds with adjacent human habitation in association and cooperation with the local adjacent human population.

By its charter, The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state's natural and cultural resources for current and future generations.  Proper stewardship by a wildlife resource agency to fulfill this mission requires that a beautiful and treasured natural resource like the mute swan be managed for and consistent with the health of Michigan's ecosystems and that any negative impacts from such a species be managed as humanely as possible and on a case by case basis.  We have appreciated the opportunity to prepare this draft proposal for your consideration to help meet those goals.  We are mindful of the success we have had working with DNR to alleviate problems with resident Canada goose management and we look forward to working with you to duplicate that cooperative success and achieve a true Comprehensive Plan that meets the needs of Michigan's natural resources and naturalized free-ranging swans. 

We are prepared to meet with you and members of your staff as soon as practicable to advance this process. 


John W. Grandy, Ph. D. 

Senior Vice President, Wildlife and Habitat Protection, The Humane Society of the United States

cc: Governor Richard Snyder

Keith Creagh, Director, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Senator Carl Levin

Senator Debbie Stabenow

Interested Members of the Michigan Legislature

Interested Press

Karen Stamper, Michigan Save Our Swans Committee

Linda Reider, Michigan Humane Society

Jill Fritz, Michigan State Director, The Humane Society of the United States

Barbara Avers, Michigan DNR, Waterfowl and Wetland Biologist

Help Our Waterfowl

Interested Parties

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