The Trumpeter's Swan Song?
Experts are baffled by the majestic waterfowl's dwindling numbers in
the Yellowstone Park area. Feds may consider listing it as threatened.
By Tom Gorman
Times Staff Writer
January 12 2003
ISLAND PARK, Idaho -- On a windswept fork of the Snake
River, long-necked trumpeter swans glisten as white as the deep snow
that frames the scene.
"Cross-country skiers love taking the trails along the river, because
the swans alert to them but don't take off," said Keith Hobbs, who
manages Harriman State Park. When the world's largest waterfowl do take
flight, their 7-foot wingspans gently whoosh across the tops of the
Behind this serenity grows a mystery confounding wildlife officials and
swan experts: Why hasn't the number of local swans increased over the
years, even as their Canadian cousins are swelling in numbers? Some
blame the Canadian trumpeters, which winter here and deplete food
stocks that nourish those who live year-round in the tri-state region
of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
But other swan experts say that even more than improved habitat,
trumpeters need protection from hunters, who are confusing the majestic
trumpeter with the more common tundra swan.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will announce this week whether it
will consider listing the birds as threatened under the Endangered
Species Act, something it has resisted.
The swans that reside here and nearby, in and around Yellowstone
National Park, are the only trumpeters in the Lower 48 states to have
survived near extinction in the United States in the 1930s. They were
widely hunted during the previous 100 years for meat and quills for
writing, feathers for fine hats and boas, and down for pillows.
The Canadian trumpeter, which also faced extinction in the '30s, has
flourished from conservation efforts since then. But for the birds in
this tri-state region, survival has remained a constant struggle.
Efforts to relocate some of the swans to wilderness areas from Oregon
to Nebraska have met mixed results, and the core flock dipped last year
to 326, about 50% fewer than in 1988.
A pair of wildlife advocacy groups -- the Fund for Animals and the
Biodiversity Legal Foundation -- has sued to compel the Fish and
Wildlife Service to list the trumpeter swan as a threatened species.
Among the issues being debated by federal wildlife officials is whether
the local birds should be considered simply a flock of the thriving
Canadian population or viewed as a geographically separate and distinct
population in need of greater stewardship. Authorities aren't sure why
local trumpeters haven't done better for themselves on the Yellowstone
"These are spectacular birds and you'd assume there would have been a
tremendous amount of research done on them," said John Cornely, the
regional migratory bird coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"But the truth is, since they reside in such remote areas, there hasn't
been much research.
"When there's a drop in the group's numbers, we're all concerned," he
said. "But it comes down to a difference of opinion as to the cause.
Maybe they've redistributed themselves due to the drought. What we do
know is, we haven't come across a pile of dead swans."
But environmentalists suspect the flock is falling victim to swan
hunting in Utah, where some tri-state trumpeters migrate in winter.
Around Utah's Great Salt Lake, up to 2,000 permits are issued annually
to hunters of the abundant tundra swan, which look similar to, but are
slightly smaller than, trumpeters. Because of the similarities between
the two birds, hunters are not held liable for mistakenly shooting
trumpeter swans and are allowed to keep them after showing them to
federal game officials for recording purposes.
Tom Aldrich, Utah's waterfowl program coordinator, said that last year,
two trumpeter swans were reported killed and none were reported the
previous year. He acknowledged that the accuracy of those counts rests
on hunters' honesty.
"A very, very small harvest of trumpeter swans shouldn't have any
overall effect on them," Aldrich said.
As a precaution, Utah closes the tundra swan hunting season if the
deaths of 10 trumpeter swans are reported, but swan champions contend
that far more trumpeters are killed by sport hunters of trophy birds
who don't report to authorities.
"Swans have held a special place in society throughout history," said
Ruth Shea, executive director of the Trumpeter Swan Society. "They have
a role in art, literature, song, dance and in some religions.
"We came close to losing all the swans in this country in the last
century," she said. "This was the only group that was not lost, but we
haven't finished the job. It is especially appalling that hunters are
allowed to shoot them with no liability."
Another wildlife advocacy group, Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility, complained in a report that the Fish and Wildlife
Service "appears determined to keep a hunting season for swans open at
all costs, even the potential loss of the tri-state [swan] population."
Andrea Lococo, a regional coordinator for the Fund for Animals, said
"the government is playing Russian roulette with our last remaining
trumpeter swans, simply to placate sport hunters."
Swan advocates believe that the tri-state trumpeters might have
established a tradition of migrating to the Great Salt Lake by now,
were it not for tundra swan hunters. But instead, they theorize, the
trumpeters that are killed in Utah's Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
deprive the tri-state flock of its migratory-behaving pioneers, leaving
them instead to compete for winter food with the Canadian flocks that
Federal wildlife officials haven't listed tri-state trumpeters as
threatened partly because the number of birds fluctuates with no
sustained downward trend. "We don't tend to put a lot of faith in any
one year's numbers," Cornely said. "These are surveys done by
biologists flying 100 to 500 feet off the ground in Cessnas, because
these birds tend to stay in pretty remote areas."
Besides, he said, the decision hasn't yet been made whether to consider
the tri-state trumpeters as a population separate from the Canadian
birds. "We're trying to determine from a biological and evolutionary
sense whether these birds are different and significant, and what their
role is in perpetuating the trumpeter swan in North America," he said.
But Shea, who earned her master's degree in wildlife biology by
studying the trumpeters around Yellowstone, said the tri-state swans
should be treated just like bald eagles, which were given protection in
the contiguous 48 states while they flourished elsewhere in North
"Just because there are thousands of trumpeters outside the United
States,'' she said, "doesn't relieve our responsibility in protecting
the ones here."
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