POLSON — When Dale Becker released the first trumpeter swans on the Flathead Reservation in more than 20 years, he became part of a conservation success story.
That first year, though, didn’t go so well.
Back in 1996, the Tri-State segment of the Rocky Mountain population of swans was struggling. A harsh winter at their stronghold in the Centennial Valley’s Red Rock Refuge had placed the population in peril.
Becker and others also realized that it was a species that had called Northwest Montana its home.
“Swans were supposed to be here,” Becker said.
That first year, Becker released 19 birds near Pablo.
They eventually flew away and never returned.
Undeterred, Becker and others kept trying. They found their own brood stock and continued to release swans in a Mission Valley that is seemingly made for raising waterfowl in its plentiful wetlands.
To date, the CSKT has released 264 captive-bred Trumpeter Swans since 2002. Those birds have resulted in at least 123 successful nesting attempts that produced 354 fledgling cygnets.
While most of the documented nesting success has occurred on the Flathead Indian Reservation, swans that began their lives on the reservation have spread their wings and settled near Eureka and quite possibly Glacier National Park and the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge.
Becker believes there’s a chance that some of the birds released on the Flathead Indian Reservation may have even settled north of the border in Canada.
“I think the potential is really good for that to happen,” Becker said. “Our populations are going in the right direction.”
When swans reach the age of three, they begin to pair and produce baby swans called cygnets.
Becker and other members of the Tribal Wildlife Management Program conduct an annual survey of wetlands on the reservation to record nesting attempts and production.
This year, they counted 15 nests that produced 51 cygnets.
“It should have been higher than that, but you get what you get,” Becker said. “You do usually lose a few when they are very young. If you can get through the first week or 10 days, you’re pretty solid. I like to see that number in the 60s or 70s.”
But those are only the swans that Becker knows about.
He and others tracking the success of the restoration project depend on the public to report swan sightings in Northwest Montana of nesting attempts and production.
Becker said people typically are happy to help.
“They are kind of a white hat species,” Becker said. “They don’t eat cows or get into chicken coops. People who own land are often pretty excited when they see them in their backyard and they take a lot of pride in having them around.
“The more eyes that we can get out there, the better,” he said.
If you have observed Trumpeter Swans nesting or adult swans with cygnets, contact Becker, Tribal Wildlife Program Manager by phone at 406-675-2700, extension 7278 or by email at email@example.com.
Similar reintroduction projects are ongoing in the Blackfoot and Madison valleys in Montana.
“They were a missing piece of the ecological puzzle here,” Becker said. “And now they’re back.”