HARTFORD - An unusual battle is engaging the Connecticut Audubon Society and bird lovers over the future of mute swans in the state.
The Connecticut Audubon Society is asking the state Department of Environmental Protection to remove the swans from critical marine habitats, contending that the graceful birds are invaders causing serious environmental harm.
Defenders of the swans say any move against the birds is unacceptable.
"If the DEP tries to target the mute swan, we'll give them a full-fledged war," said Kathryn Burton of East Lyme, founder of Save Our Swans USA.
The group has sued other states that have tried to curb the swan's rapid population growth.
Connecticut Audubon plans to lobby legislators to give state environmental officials authority to control the number of mute swans. In Connecticut, the swans are a protected species.
"Mute swans may be beautiful, but the havoc they wreak is anything but," said Milan Bull, the Audubon Society's senior director of science and conservation. "They create a marine desert below the waterline and drive away native species."
Biologists say the mute swan is a threat because it devours the shallow-water eelgrass that shelters bay scallops and lobsters and feeds native waterfowl unable to dive under water for food.
Connecticut Audubon says the swan population totals more than 1,100, particularly along the shoreline, which is already affected by rising water temperatures and pollution. The mute swan is expanding inland where it has been spotted in Avon and Woodstock.
The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection regards the mute swan as an invasive species. The state allows the DEP commissioner to destroy wildlife in the interest of wildlife management if it is determined to be aggressively invading or is likely to be detrimental to native plants, livestock, wildlife or ecosystems.
Commissioner Gina McCarthy has not made such a determination, spokesman Dennis Schain said. The agency is reviewing the issue but has yet to decide what to do or even how or when such a decision might be made, he said.
"It's a really serious and significant step for the agency created to protect the environment to think about authorizing action against one species," Schain said. "It's not something that can be done lightly."
The state tried to manage the mute swan population in 1992, but its plans touched off protests from animal activists.
New York and Rhode Island allow the shaking of eggs until they are no longer viable, but Connecticut forbids the destruction of eggs and the hunting of any swan. However, the Department of Environmental Protection said in its Connecticut Aquatic Nuisance Species Management Plan that it hopes to soon join a regional swan control effort aiming to reduce the population in Connecticut to about 200 by 2013.
It will be a tough sell, said state Representative Richard Roy, a Milford Democrat and co-chairman of the General Assembly's Environment Committee.
"Swans have been regaled in song and story for centuries," he said. "It would be hard for legislators to tell their constituents why they had to go. If they're doing real damage, we'll give it our best look, but I'd have a lot of questions."