Trumpeter swan

A trumpeter swan feeds in the Madison River in Yellowstone

National Park.

BRETT FRENCH/Gazette Staff

HELENA — Wildlife officials plan to release five young trumpeter swans into the restored wetlands of Montana's Madison River as part of an effort to bolster the declining populations of the species in the Northern Rocky Mountains.

If the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission approves the September release, it would start a five-year program to create a small population of the migratory birds that nest along the blue-ribbon trout stream northwest of Yellowstone National Park.

"They're a great icon for wetlands and wetland health," said Gary Neudecker, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who worked on a similar reintroduction program in Montana's Blackfoot River Valley. "If they can link up with their partners in Canada and the U.S., hopefully we will increase our genetic viability among those populations."

Trumpeter swans are North America's largest waterfowl, with a wingspan up to 8 feet and weighing in at 30 pounds. They are not listed as endangered or threatened, though only about 500 birds nest in the Lower 48 states, compared to 4,500 in Canada.

Trumpeter swan populations in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are declining, and of particular concern is the struggling population in Yellowstone that has stopped producing offspring. The decline has prompted a half-dozen restoration programs meant to boost swan populations and diversify their genetics across the region.

The Madison River project is a small but important part of that effort, said Tom Hinz, Montana Wetlands Legacy Partnership Coordinator for the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"If we can just get a few pairs nesting there, we'll view that as a success," he said. "We're trying to connect the dots so that in valleys from southeastern Idaho to northwestern Montana, we'll have at least a few trumpeter swans in areas where wetlands exist."

The Madison Valley program is similar to the Blackfoot Valley program, which released some 125 trumpeter swans into the wetlands there since 2005. Last year, two pairs of swans produced offspring, Neudecker said.

Another recent reintroduction program was in partnership with the Salish and Kootenai tribes in northwestern Montana.

If the Madison Valley program is approved, officials will ship five 70-day-old swans bred in captivity at the Wyoming Wetlands Society in Jackson, Wyo., to the restored O'Dell Creek headwaters south of Ennis.

The young swans would learn to fly in their new homes, which increases the chances that the migratory birds will return to the site after the winter, said Bill Long, president of the Wyoming Wetlands Society.

"They'll learn to fly this year. They'll be flying and potentially could migrate," Long said. "We will have to wait to see what these birds will do."

The O'Dell Creek wetlands have undergone significant habitat restoration since 2005. The land were once drained for hay production and livestock grazing, but federal, state and private partners restored more than 550 acres of wetlands by plugging drainage ditches, Hinz said.

Biologists have since documented hundreds of new species of plants and birds, but the reintroduction of the trumpeter swan would be a feather in their cap.

"We're trying to use the trumpeter swan as a way to build awareness that restoring wetlands is important to maintaining the quality of life in Montana. Everyone needs clean water and the wetlands help create that," Hinz said.

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