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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 17, 2004 - Issue 111


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Tribes build habitat, home for Trumpeter Swans

by B.L. Azure - Char-Koosta News
credits: photo: Wintering Trumpeters on the Mississippi River, Monticello, Minnesota. Photo by Greg Gerjets, Rice, Minnesota.

Wintering Trumpeters on the Mississippi River, Monticello, Minnesota. Photo by Greg Gerjets, Rice, Minnesota.PABLO -- Time flies and so do trumpeter swans. However, trumpeter swans, once a common resident of the area, haven't flown regularly over Flathead Indian Reservation for quite some time. And the monogamous birds haven't set up family nesting areas for more than a century. But that may change, thanks to a cooperative effort between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Tribes' Wildlife Management Program has been at the forefront of the trumpeter swan reintroduction effort on the reservation since 1996. However, the success has been fleeting as the flighty big birds have stayed awhile then ventured on. Hopefully, that is about to change.

Two trumpeter swans have been spotted regularly at a pond just west of U.S. 93 in the Duck Haven Waterfowl Production Area. The 30-square-mile refuge is located three miles south of Ronan and is comprised of private, state, federal and tribally owned parcels of prime wetlands, according to Bill West, USFWS deputy project leader.

The waterfowl production areas are open to the public and in-season hunting is permitted. No motorized vehicles are allowed on land or water inside the boundaries.

Last week the Tribes and the USFWS laid out the welcome mat, literally, when they set a four foot by eight-foot floating deck in the pond across from the scenic turnout. The floating nesting deck was covered with willow branches and reeds for a nesting base and a "welcome" mat. The mat is meant to provide sure footing for the couple and, it's hoped, for any offspring they may have. The floating deck was anchored far enough off shore to protect the trumpeter swans from four-legged predators.

The wildlife management crew hopes the floating deck will turn into a love boat for the two swans from which they will do the "birds and bees" thing and raise a family. It would be a historic step in the reintroduction effort.

"This year we may have breeding on the ground for the first time in more than 100 years," said Dale Becker. The pair of trumpeter swans were released two years ago have been hanging around the area, much to the delight of Becker and crew and West. Swans mate for life and do not need to migrate. Once they find a habitat to their liking they tend to stay and raise numerous generations of offspring or "cygnets."

The trumpeter swan was plentiful in the area in the 1800s. But since the late-1800s the population has steadily declined for a myriad of reasons, mostly human-related. They were a good source of food for subsistence hunters; the Hudson Bay Company killed more than 100,000 of them over a 30-year period when the feathers were in demand for the clothing fashion industry; conversion of land from its natural state to agricultural uses eliminated much of the birds' habitat; and consumption of lead-shot killed many. Recently 15 have been killed as a result of collisions with power lines.

The Tribes' Wildlife Management Program (WMP) first reintroduced the trumpeter swan to the Flathead Indian Reservation in 1996. Nineteen trumpeter swans that were captured in northeast Idaho were released at the Pablo Wildlife Refuge that spring. They stayed around until the fall, then migrated and never returned to the area.

After a one-year hiatus, WMP released 10 young swans at the Pablo Refuge in the spring of 1998. Those birds left in the fall, as well, and were spotted in the Bitterroot Valley area. The following spring only one of the 10 returned to the area.

Becker said the supply of captured trumpeter swans was an unstable source to rely on. Consequently the program looked to captive breeding as a source of supply. Through the more predictable and reliable captive breeding process they were able to have the stable supply source they needed.

"Captive breeding can double the productivity of the swans," Becker said. Breeders remove a set of eggs from the female and put them in incubators and the swans soon produce another batch of eggs.

In 2000 WMP released 24 swans in the area; in 2001; 15, in 2002, 34; and in 2003, they released 34.

The Tribes provide approximately $20,000 annually for the reintroduction program. Federal, state, Lake County and various non-profit entities also contribute funds and expertise.

Olor buccinator, or the trumpeter swan, is the largest waterfowl in North America and the largest swan in the world. It can weigh up to 30 pounds and has snowy white feathers; black bill, feet and legs; and an eight-foot wingspan. They have a thin orange-red line on the lower part of their bill and they can live for up to 30 years.

The trumpeter swan's historic breeding range extended from the Bering Sea east through all most all of Canada and south to Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. By 1932, fewer than 70 trumpeter swans were known to exist worldwide, at a location near Yellowstone National Park. The park's system of hot springs provided year-round open waters where they could find food and cover even during the coldest weather. That group of swans provided an important source of breeding birds for reintroductions efforts that began in the mid-1930s.

Today there are more than 16,000 trumpeter swans that can be seen from southeastern Alaska along coastal British Columbia south to the mouth of the Columbia River on the southern border of Washington. They are also found in Alberta, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, South Dakota and Minnesota.

The Tribes and Becker would like area bird watchers and others to report sightings of the trumpeter swans to the Wildlife Management Program. The birds have red neck collars and leg bands with identification numbers on them.

To report any sightings call the Wildlife Management Program in Polson at 406/883-2888, ext. 7291, or the Pablo Tribal Complex at 406/675-2700, ext. 7291.

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