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Trumpeter swan comeback is great success story

For the past two years a pair of trumpeter swans have been spending considerable time on the tiny, shallow lake I live beside southwest of Bemidji.

I believe the pair to be non-breeding adults since the birds did not build a nest in either of the two seasons I've observed them on the lake.

The large and beautiful birds, though usually shy and keeping to themselves on the opposite side of the lake, would sometimes swim casually closer if I'd remain conspicuous and fairly motionless. Strangely enough, however, they would readily investigate whenever I'd have the dog retrieve his throwing dummy, evidently their curiosity overcoming their natural wariness.

I recently learned that Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' efforts to restore the trumpeter swan population in the state have far and away exceeded all expectations. In 1987, when DNR began a trumpeter swan release program, one of the restoration project's goals was to eventually attain a trumpeter swan breeding population of 30 pairs. Through annual surveys, it is now estimated that Minnesota is home to 250 breeding pairs of trumpeter swans.

As abundant as the swans appear to be today, the great white bird came very close to becoming extinct throughout their North American range. Very few of the birds existed by the late 1800s because of over hunting. As was the allure of many other birds' ornate and beautiful feathers, trumpeter swans' feathers provided adornment for ladies fashions and, particularly, the highly fashionable hats that many women wore during the era. Swans were also hunted for food.

So, as a result of the fashion industry and rampant habitat loss from urban development and farming practices, the enormous and grand birds were nearly wiped out. Not surprisingly, Minnesota had no trumpeters at all in the late 1800s. And by the 1930s, only 69 trumpeters existed in all the lower 48 contiguous United States. That vestige population hung on, somehow, in southwestern Montana's Red Rock Lakes area.

In order to keep the population of birds from disappearing forever, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1935. Hunting the birds became unlawful, and, subsequently, the trumpeter swan population slowly began to recover. By the 1960s, Minnesota's Hennepin County Park Reserve District, which had not seen trumpeters in nearly 100 years, much less the state itself, acquired 40 birds from RRLNWR to establish a breeding flock. Soon afterwards Minnesota saw its first nesting trumpeter swans.

In 1968, The Trumpeter Swan Society was founded to promote the reestablishment of trumpeter swans across the birds' former and historic range. Based in Maple Plain, Minn., the private, non-profit organization has, according to the society's mission statement, " ... provided the vision, knowledge, and advocacy to move restoration efforts forward and improve management of trumpeter swans across North America."

By 1982, the Minnesota DNR Nongame Wildlife Program became instrumental in the expansion of trumpeter swans over the remainder of Minnesota. Throughout the 1980s the Nongame Program began acquiring eggs from national wildlife refuges, zoos and private propagators. And in the late 1980s, eggs were collected from an Alaskan trumpeter swan population, brought back home to Minnesota, incubated, and the young reared at Carlos Avery State Wildlife Management Area, near Forest Lake, Minn.

In 1987, 21 non-breeding adult trumpeter swans were released near Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in Becker County, followed by other releases in Nicollet, Itasca and St. Louis counties, with additional releases occurring in Becker County. In all, 64 trumpeters were released in Minnesota from 1987-1994.

In 1995, Minnesota and Iowa departments of natural resources, along with North Heron Lake Game Producers Association, began a 10-year cooperative effort to restore trumpeters in southwestern Minnesota and northern Iowa. The success of the initial collaboration has since spawned a second, 10-year restoration effort. As a result of this cooperative venture, 62 trumpeter swans have been released in southwestern Minnesota.

Now, after more than 25 years of dedicated work by natural resource professionals, conservation organizations and citizens, more than 350 swans have been released in Minnesota. Today, the statewide trumpeter swan population is estimated at about 2,800 birds -- many of which breed, nest, and rear their young all across the state. Coupled with similar trumpeter swan restoration projects in the Upper Midwest and Canada, the North American interior population is more than 5,000 birds.

Though the swan couple that has been visiting my lake are probably just newlyweds (trumpeters "pair up" between the ages of 2 and 4, and begin breeding and nesting from 4 to 7 years old), I'm hoping that when the ice disappears from my little lake this April, I'll be treated to the sight of the trumpeter swan pair I've come to know and appreciate in these past two seasons. Perhaps 2009 will be the year, or possibly the next, that they will breed, build a nest and raise their young.

What a wonderful wildlife success story. The snow-white trumpeter swans, with their nearly 7-foot long wingspans, are birds that truly represent beauty, grace and all that is Minnesota wild as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.


Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at