Led by Tribal Scientists, Montana’s Trumpeter Swan Revival Is a Triumph

After two decades the Flathead Indian Reservation’s breeding program prepares for its swan song.

On a dewy summer morning in the Mission Valley, a quartet of Trumpeter Swans bobbed around a grassy pen at the Montana Waterfowl Foundation’s captive-breeding center, waiting for their checkup. By July’s end, the five-foot-long birds would be free to roam the vast Flathead Indian Reservation. But at the moment, they were being tailed by Dale Becker and his wrangling crew.

As a volunteer steadied (read: cuddled) each patient, the veterinarian drew blood and tissue, while Becker, a biologist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, slipped serialized bands around the swans’ necks to prepare them for release a few miles west of the center. There, the gawky brood would have a chance to join a prospering wild population that was locally extinct mere decades ago.

By the 20th century, feather collectors and subsistence hunters had killed most of the breeding Trumpeter Swans around the Rocky Mountains. Conversion of wetland habitat for agriculture accelerated the species’ decline until the mid-1900s, after which a regional reintroduction plan kicked into action. With a long history of wildlife-reintroduction programs on their land (Peregrine Falcons, northern leopard frogs, and others), the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes were inspired to help the birds, so in the late 1990s they banned swan hunting and brought in cygnets from Oregon and Canada. But when the new recruits didn’t fly back from their Idaho wintering grounds, it was clear that a more hands-on strategy was needed.

Cue the vet visits and swan tag. With funding from wildlife agencies, Becker and the tribes launched a captive-breeding program at the Montana Waterfowl Foundation. When the first incubator chicks hatched in 2001, there were no wild pairs on the reservation. But through care, persistence, and a little assistance from surrogate parents, the project was able to release 34 birds after a year. About 400 more have followed since, lending to the sprawling flock that Becker keeps watch over. 

Success and all, one of the program's biggest hurdles was that "much of the traditional knowledge on [the species] was lost when it was on the brink of extinction,” says Janene Lichtenberg, a former biologist with the tribes and current board member with the Mission Mountain Audubon Society. This was in part propelled by the assimilation of indigenous people at the turn of the last century, she adds. Children were forced to enroll in boarding schools, and as a result, weren't able to learn the natural history of the reservation firsthand. But the same kind of exchange faded across different generations of swans as well, Lichtenberg says. "Connections among older and younger birds are important for passing on information among generations such as migration routes, wintering areas, and food sources,” she explains.

With the steady release and re-entrenchment of the birds, that knowledge is being relearned, however. Every spring, the wild Trumpeter population swells a little more after a seasoned set of individuals returns from migration. Today, nearly 200 swans make camp from March to December in Flathead's carefully tended wetlands. Region-wide, the population numbers in the thousands.

The species’ growing presence is ecologically pivotal, Lichtenberg says. On the reservation, the swans drive away destructive geese, dig up aquatic plants with their feet, and deposit nutrients into the habitat. But Kari Eneas, a young wildlife biologist with the tribes, also sees the Trumpeters as an opportunity to connect with the land—and her culture—on a deeper level. Working with the reintroduction program, she says, taught her "a great deal about conservation and the importance of living intentionally." Moreover, it showed her that even a small, localized effort could have visible results. “You can’t drive through the valley corridor without spotting the large white birds bobbing in a wetland pothole,” Eneas says.

Others in the area have taken notice of the tribes’ success, too. Landowners quickly began reaching out to learn more about what they could do to improve their ponds to attract or keep Trumpeter Swans,” Litchenberg says. “It's truly an inspiring story of environmental restoration by the tribes,” adds Jim Rogers, president of Mission Mountain Audubon Society, which has volunteered with the releases and helped garner awareness. “It serves as a reminder of what we can do given the cooperation of various agencies and dedication of sufficient resources.”

The road to recovery has posed some modern challenges. Since 2002, powerline collisions have claimed at least 27 swans (mortalities have slowed since the utility company added flight markers), and discarded lead shot has turned up in a dead bird. Still, Becker thinks the population is stable enough to curb captive breeding. Time will tell if his latest class of cygnets fly back home next spring. But at least he knows that the fate of the local Trumpeters no longer rests on their wings.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2018 issue of Audubon as “Triumph of the Trumpeters.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.