Politics & Government

Another sad Swan Lake tale

Washington's mute swans have finally found someone to speak for them.

State Rep. Larry Seaquist and state Sen. Derek Kilmer, both Democrats from Gig Harbor, are looking to ease restrictions on trafficking the birds so that a Gig Harbor homeowners association can obtain a second swan for a private lake.

State wildlife officials have banned the sale and ownership of mute swans since 1991. They are deemed “deleterious exotic wildlife” because officials say they destroy wetlands and occasionally attack people and other animals.

That’s nonsense, say homeowners in Gig Harbor’s Sylvia Lake community, who have kept a pair of mute swans on their lake for more than 20 years to ward off Canada geese.

The residents have spent two years trying to replace one of the swans, which died in December 2007.

The state allowed the homeowners to keep the old swans because they were brought in before 1991. But replacing one of the birds is out of the question without a change in law.

“This is our last resort,” said Bill Higday, secretary of the Sylvia Lake homeowners association, which represents about 80 property owners. “Our efforts to sit down and talk with fish and wildlife officials have been totally unsuccessful.”

A hearing on the Senate version of the bill, SB 6255, will take place at 1:30 p.m. Monday. A hearing on the House version, HB 2476, is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Sylvia Lake homeowners fear the remaining swan will soon die and the Canada geese will return to the lake, said Sarah Polyakov, who has lived in the Sylvia Lake community for 31/2 years.

The geese scare children and pollute the lake with their droppings, she said.

“We really just don’t want our pristine property ruined,” Polyakov said. “They make a mess and are very aggressive.”

Conversely, the lake’s remaining mute swan – a male named Prince – is far from dangerous, Polyakov said.

She said she befriended the swan after his mate, Princess, died in 2007, and feeds him and sings to him regularly.

“He actually closes his eyes and bows his head and he looks like he’s meditating,” Polyakov said. “He’s very docile.”

Fish and wildlife officials see it differently.

“They cause a real problem for wetlands and native wildlife,” said Don Kraege, waterfowl section manager with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife “They can eat up to 8 pounds of vegetation a day, and they’ve even been known to attack people.”

The legislative bills would allow up to two mute swans on private lakes under 20 acres in size, as long as the birds are altered so they can’t reproduce and pinioned so they can’t fly away.

Seaquist, the sponsor of the House bill, said the swans do a great job of keeping the geese away and that homeowners should be able to keep them for that purpose.

“If they’re neutered and pinioned, they’re perfectly safe,” Seaquist said. “It makes sense what they are trying to do.”

Kilmer, sponsor of the Senate bill, said allowing mute swans in places like Sylvia Lake could cut down on aquatic pollution that homeowners or state officials would have to fix later.

“We spend a substantial amount of money trying to clean up lakes that have contamination issues,” Kilmer said. “This seemed a reasonable way to save some dough in the long run.”

Wildlife officials say mute swans are not native to North America and are intensely territorial.

In Maryland last year, an advisory task force recommended that the state Department of Natural Resources continue killing mute swans to protect native vegetation and wildlife.

Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends that people deter Canada geese using barriers, lawn management and a variety of scare tactics – not including mute swans.

Higday, the secretary of the Sylvia Lake homeowners association, said geese aren’t the only issue. The mute swans increase the aesthetic value of the community, he said.

“When I bought my home here, I looked at the lake, then I looked at the swans, then I looked at the house – in that order,” Higday said. “It’s hard to believe how pretty (the swans) are.”

Melissa Santos: 253-552-7058