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Wildlife biologists prepare floating nest for trumpeter swan reintroduction
Janene Lichtenberg, left, and Shannon Clairmont, wildlife biologists with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, finish constructing a floating nesting platform for trumpeter swans Tuesday morning at the Duck Haven Waterfowl Production Area about three miles south of Ronan. The platform was anchored in the pond so the swans aren't disturbed by coyotes, dogs or other land predators.
Photo by JOSH PARKER/Missoulian

RONAN - A sheet of plywood decking with two plastic "welcome" mats attached and a few willow branches, reeds and rushes piled on top was towed out on a pond Tuesday morning by Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes wildlife officials.

They hope the rough-and-ready raft will not only continue to float but also will become a love nest this spring for the first pair of trumpeter swans in a century to actually breed and raise a family on the Flathead Reservation.

The plastic welcome mats were added to give the swans more secure footing. The rushes and willow branches will provide a base for the nest.

The wildlife biologists chose a 15-acre prairie pond formed thousands of years ago when the last glaciers receded from the Mission Valley as home for the manmade swan nest.

The unnamed pond, one of many in the area rich with vegetation and insects suitable for the diet of swans, is just off U.S. Highway 93 on the northern corner of the Duck Haven Waterfowl Production Area, a land parcel for waterfowl production three miles south of Ronan.

Duck Haven WPA is part of a 30-square-mile area managed cooperatively for the benefit of waterfowl in the Mission Valley. Some others in the area include Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area and Kicking Horse WPA. The land ownership is mixed - federal, state, tribal and private - but the management goal is the same, to protect and enhance waterfowl habitat.

The raft was anchored to the bottom of the pond with concrete blocks so it won't blow back to shore where dogs, coyotes or other predators might disturb the swan pair. A mom swan is called a "pen" in biologists' lingo; a pop swan is a "cob." Adult swans mate for life, and once settled, can produce many generations of cygnets.

Unlike some other swan species - the tundra swan for example - trumpeters are stay-at-home swans that don't migrate as long as open water is available for winter feeding. This open water is provided by the lower Flathead River system on the western edge of the Mission Valley.

Dale Becker, wildlife program manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, has been trying to reintroduce a native population of trumpeters on the reservation since at least 1996, with mixed success.

The first trumpeters he obtained were from the wild; most flew off never to return. Some may have been killed by flying into power lines - still a serious threat to the big birds. One swan later was spotted near Bigfork.

In 1998, he tried again with 10 wild-born cygnets. They were captured in Canada and hauled down to Pablo Reservoir in the back of a horse trailer.

When they learned to fly, they flew back to Canada.

That's when Becker decided to try introducing domestically raised trumpeter swans to the lower Flathead.

"You can't run a reintroduction project unless you have a pretty stable supply of animals to work with," he told a media assembly Tuesday that watched and photographed the launching of his agency's bird-nest raft.

About 68 of the man-raised birds have been released into the wild on the Flathead Reservation since 2002, Becker said.

No trumpeters were spied Tuesday morning, but the protected location of the nest probably will draw a pair of the big birds once they mate up, he said.

"We're really just starting to hit our stride with captive breeding," he said.

Eventually, of course, he and others hope the swans will breed in the wild on the Flathead, making for a permanent population that needs no booster shots from biologists.

The tribes contribute about $20,000 a year to the reintroduction program, which is also supported by funding from a variety of nonprofit agencies and foundations. County, state and federal agencies also help.

"Rare species sometimes don't come back without a lot of help. The tribes have made a big commitment to reintroduce these swans," said Bill West, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deputy project leader in western Montana, who was on hand to unlock the gate into the federally managed waterfowl production area.

West emphasized that these WPAs, as the Fish and Wildlife Service calls them, are open to the public and hunting is permitted in season. But no motorized vehicles are allowed inside the fenced boundaries, and it is no place to walk a dog, since the dogs can endanger the trumpeters and other waterfowl.

Trumpeters are the largest waterfowl in the world, growing to 30 pounds, with a wingspan of 8 feet. They are docile, compared to other swan species, but are protective of young and nesting sites.

Becker asked bird-watchers, hikers and local residents to keep a lookout for the swans - they all have distinctive red neck collars and leg bands with numbers on them, and to report any current sightings to the wildlife biologists in the tribal office in Polson, (406) 883-2888.

A stable, good-sized breeding population of trumpeter swans existed more than century ago on the Flathead Reservation. Father DeSmet, one of the first white men to live in the region, reported seeing trumpeters along the south shore of Flathead Lake in the early 19th century, and Indians hunted them for food along the Flathead River.

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But after the arrival of European firearms and market hunters, the swans were decimated in order to supply a seemingly insatiable market for the eggs, flesh, skin and feathers of the majestic birds.

By the early 20th century, trumpeters were hunted nearly to extinction throughout North America.

Lead poisoning, from eating lead shot deposited on pond bottoms, and the usual habitat destruction resulting from the draining of wetlands for farms and other human development further devastated the trumpeters in North America.

At one point in the 1930s, as few as 70 birds were thought to have survived slaughter by hunters outside of Alaska.

But in one of the great success stories of wildlife management, they have made a tremendous resurgence, aided by protection from hunting, habitat restoration and reintroduction programs like the one Becker is heading up on the Flathead Reservation.

There are now as many as 16,000 birds in North America, most of which live in Alaska, and winter in the Pacific Ocean. The swans in Canada and the lower 48 states were brought back through introduction of the birds in suitable areas, such as Red Rock Lakes in southwestern Montana, where the original recovery program began.

About 500 now exist in the three-state area of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, including the Red Rock Lakes Refuge flock, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates.

"We feel this is an outstanding area for a swan comeback. We are excited. We'll have some wild breeding here," Becker predicted.

Trumpeter watch

Dale Becker, wildlife program manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, has asked local residents to watch for trumpeter swans at the Mission Valley's Duck Haven Waterfowl Production Area, where a floating manmade nest was set up Tuesday. The swans have distinctive red neck collars and leg bands with numbers on them. To report sightings, call (406) 883-2888.

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at jstromnes@missoulian.com

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