Trumpeter Swan Restoration: A Montana Love Story
By Patti Bartlett
Broadcast on 1.11 & 1.14.2023
Montana is a love story, with life and death, heroes and villains. Right here in my own Blackfoot Watershed is one such chapter in that love story, that of the re-introduction of the Trumpeter Swan.
We know that Trumpeter Swans were historically part of the Blackfoot Watershed from the journal of Meriwether Lewis in July of 1806, who recorded seeing a pair at the confluence of the Clearwater and Blackfoot Rivers. In the years following, the Trumpeter Swan population across our country was decimated due in part to the feather trade, and the Blackfoot had been without trumpeters for almost 200 years.
Historically, Trumpeter Swans covered much of North America, but by 1932, a National Park Service survey found only 69 trumpeters in the entire contiguous United States. This spurred a conservation effort that included a feeding program in the Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge near Dillon, Montana. That, along with land acquisition, hunting regulations, and education increased the population to around 500 birds by the 1950s.
In 2003, a pair of the largest waterfowl in North America came to rest on a pond at the head of the Blackfoot near Lincoln, Montana, and so, this chapter of our love story begins.
Late that spring, the male swan, the cob, was observed passing cattails to his lifelong mate, the pen, as they constructed a large, bowl-shaped nest with hopes of raising cygnets in the watershed. They produced a clutch of four large creamy white eggs. Late one night in early June, the power went out at a nearby home and the landowner went to see what happened. The lovely pen had hit a power line as she flew off the nest to feed. Her lifeless body lay on the ground.
With quick thinking by that heroic landowner and help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, those four large eggs were put in a bucket with straw to maintain their warmth and taken to surrogate swans in the Ninepipes area of the Mission Valley. Three of those eggs survived. The surrogate swans guided the hatchlings to aquatic insects for their first few weeks of life as they gained 20 percent of their body weight daily. The cygnets slowly transitioned to eating plant life, and later that summer were returned to their father on that Blackfoot wetland. By the time they weighed about 15 pounds, the cob was teaching them to fly. The cob and his ash-gray cygnets left the Blackfoot that fall and were seen in the Yellowstone ecosystem that winter.
But that is not the end of this chapter of our love story. In some respects, it is only the beginning. In 2005, with the cooperation of local landowners; a local conservation group – the Blackfoot Challenge; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a restoration project began in our Land of 30,000 Wetlands. For nearly 20 years, we have released over 200 Trumpeter Swans in the watershed. Many of those releases have included the public, the media, and the governor, but primarily the students from the seven schools in the watershed.
I have taught some of those students swan biology and they saw the first grader-sized birds up close as their teachers held the big birds being banded. I can say there is nothing like holding a 25-pound cob whose eight-foot wingspan could be dangerous. Over the years, I have received numerous reports from students who have stopped the track bus alongside the lake to try and read a swan’s banding number, and calls exclaiming, “There’s a pair of swans on Salmon Lake!” or “This weekend I saw swans by Ovando.” Those stories of the love of our landscape and the wildlife it supports are something to behold. Those students, our future, provide hope.
With conservation efforts such as these across Montana, the United States, and Canada, the trumpeter population in the Rocky Mountain region is now more than 11,700, and up to 63,000 across the continent.
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