OVANDO — An enchanted Susie Maclin clutched the trumpeter swan cygnet in her arms, moments before releasing it into Jones Lake on the Rolling Stone Ranch Thursday morning.
“I can feel his heart beat,” whispered Maclin, who volunteers with Montana Audubon.
The immature swan, which can grow to 30 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, squirmed briefly as Maclin smiled at the crowd gathered in front of her, waiting for the moment of freedom to arrive.
Greg Neudecker, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, explained to about 150 people gathered at the edge of the lake that after 15 years, they’re close to concluding the efforts to re-establish trumpeter swans in the Blackfoot watershed. Meriwether Lewis described seeing them in the Clearwater Valley just west of here in 1806, Neudecker said, but they disappeared from the landscape as they were trapped and their bright white feathers became coveted in European high society.
“Ornamental hats and pins were made from the swan feathers … and pretty soon the swans disappeared,” Neudecker said. “By the time the settlers came here, they were pretty much gone.”
Behind him, one of the five swans trumpeted out a loud “oh-OH” squawk from its dog kennel, almost as if it, too, was wincing at the history.
The effort to return the trumpeters to the Blackfoot Valley started in 1993, after wildlife officials and area residents realized the swans were the only species missing here from the days of the Lewis and Clark expedition. As they started thinking about the process, Louie Bouma of Lincoln found a nesting pair on an island on his property. But before the four eggs hatched in their nest, the female flew into a power line and died.
Bouma collected the eggs, and three of the four hatched in a Mission Valley facility.
The male stayed at the nesting site, and when the cygnets were returned there, he took them under his wing.
“Unfortunately, we never saw them come back,” Neudecker said. “It was sad that the female died but it helped jump-start our program.”
For three years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took eggs from nests in Canada, where the trumpeter swan population was thriving. They had a strategy; usually, trumpeter swans lay four to seven eggs. Neudecker’s group would leave two that were fertile and take the rest.
“We gathered 60 eggs for three years in a row,” he said. “Then we took them to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to hatch, then brought them here and released them.”
But it’s not quite that simple. Cygnets’ flight feathers — 10 of them on each wing — take 90 to 100 days to grow after they hatch. So in recent years, the trumpeters were kept until they were about a year old and their flight feathers had grown in, then they were brought to Jones Lake with the hopes that after they migrated, they would return to the place where they learned to fly and start raising their own families.
“We wanted to test if we could release trumpeter swans on a landscape where they need to migrate and they have no adults to follow. Will they come back?” Neudecker said. “It’s taken us a while to get to where we are today, but these are amazing birds that can figure out where to migrate, find open water and find food. Now they’re mixing with birds from Canada, the Mission valley and elsewhere … for genetic diversity.”
So far, the Fish and Wildlife Service and a host of partners have released 250 trumpeter swans in the Blackfoot Valley in the past 15 years, with a goal of seven successful nesting pairs for two consecutive years in a row.
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“We figured that if they averaged four eggs, we’d have 28 birds per year being pumped onto the landscape,” Neudecker said. “This year is the first year we broke that barrier; in fact, we had eight nesting pairs. But we need to reach that again next year, and hopefully that’s the last trumpeter swan release in the Blackfoot Valley.”
Many here were students from nearby schools — Lincoln, Ovando, Helmville, Seeley Lake, Potomac and Condon — and had studied trumpeter swans and their habitat before the field trip.
“We are making swan nests from natural materials because we want to learn more about the swans’ habitat,” said Sawyer Hessler, a fifth-grader at Ovando Elementary.
Her teacher, Andrea Tougas, added that there hasn’t been a swan release here for the past few years, so the students were thrilled to be part of the outing. Her students work closely with the nonprofit Blackfoot Challenge throughout the year, and this was a chance to see their efforts on the ground.
“For some of my students, this is their first time. We also have returning veterans. But we’re all excited to see this,” Tougas said. “This is relevant to our place and valley, especially for us. Everything goes back to keeping conservation in our valley. Not just the swans but conservation overall.”
Moments after Neudecker spoke, Carl Brown, the executive director of the Wyoming Wetlands Society where the cygnets were raised, opened one of the dog kennel's doors, reached inside and pulled the swan out as it honked loudly. He wrapped his arms around the bird that covered his chest and stomach, with its legs dangling and long neck stretching horizontal to the ground, as it continued squawking its annoyance.
Brown brought the unhappy cygnet to Katie Spencer, a sixth-grade teacher in Lincoln, who was seated in a folding chair. In her arms, the cygnet dropped its head, playing dead, as volunteers put a new leg band on it.
“Playing dead is a safety mechanism,” Neudecker told the crowd, adding that if a bear came upon the swan, the bear would think the swan was dead and not pay much attention to it. Once the bear turned its back, the swan could fly away.
After being banded, the cygnet was transferred to Pietro Castelli, who also was seated on a folding chair but who would be allowed to release the swan.
“It’s surprisingly heavy, but he or she is extremely soft,” Castelli said quietly. “You can feel that they’re anxious and scared. They’re uncomfortable but reasonably strong. You just have to watch out for the three claws on the end of her toes. They’re extremely sharp.”
Once all five birds were banded, the volunteers walked over to the Jones Lake shore, holding the birds. Neudecker counted to three as the volunteers bent over, then spread their arms wide.
With a cacophony of honks, a splash of water and a whoosh of flapping wings, the cygnets’ freedom took flight.
“That was fabulous,” Maclin said afterward, a broad smile across her face as she showed off the results of a close encounter with her swan’s claws. “I got two tears in my shirt sleeves and now I have swan scars that I will proudly wear. And I’m not throwing away my shirt.
“When he relaxed, he put his neck down and took a big sigh. Then someone would walk by and you could feel him getting stressed. It was amazing. I’ve held lots of birds, but this was extraordinary.”