Meriwether Lewis observed trumpeter swans when he and his expedition traveled through the Blackfoot Valley in 1806 - more than 200 years ago.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, people hunted the swans as a game bird and a source of feathers. By the early 1900s, breeding trumpeters in most of Montana became a bird of the past.

Today, the trumpeter swan is considered a bird of concern and an effort is being made to reintroduce them to the Blackfoot Valley.

"This is the only place in the 48 states that has all the species that were here 200 years ago," Greg Neudecker, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, told students this week.

Recently, 90 students from Blackfoot watershed schools - Lincoln, Helmville, Ovando, Seeley, Potomac, Greenough - arrived at the Blackfoot Waterfowl Production Area, about 10 miles east of Ovando, to observe the release of eight trumpeter swan cygnets.

Nancy Schwalm, Blackfoot Challenge education coordinator, said the educational opportunity for the kids was developed "because they are our future observers."

This is the second year students in grades 6-8 have participated in the program which allows them to follow their "adopted" swan via the Internet and what students said is a "once- or twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Cole Henrekin from the Ovando school said students there tracked their swan last year checking the website every other day.

"We saw it and other swans near our school," Henrekin said. "It stayed around here and at Montour Creek, then it

migrated, going north first, and then to an area near the Idaho-Montana border. It's interesting to see where they go."

On Monday, students learned about wetlands, plant species, wetland birds, aquatic invertebrates and their ecological relationship to each other. Then they observed biologists remove genetic identification leg bands from trumpeter swan cygnets and replace them with red and white numbered leg and neck bands before being released into the pond.

The reintroduction of trumpeter swans to the Blackfoot Valley started in 2005. So far, 112 have been released over the years. Most birds return to where they were born, but swans and geese return to where they learned to fly. Neudecker said multiple birds have returned to the Blackfoot Valley.

The swans become sexually mature at 3 to 5 years. The goal is to release swans each year until seven nesting pair are

established to provide a sustainable population.

Though rarely seen before, a pair of swans nested in 2004 near Louie Bouma's post and pole operation in Lincoln. Unfortunately, the female was killed after flying into a power line. Bouma collected the eggs from the nest and took them to a Missoula wildlife facility where three of the four eggs hatched. The cygnets were returned to the nest where the male accepted them and in the fall led them out of the valley on migration.

The number one cause of swan fatalities is power lines, Neudecker said. The Fish and Wildlife Service worked with Bouma to bury the power line, and he has been a volunteer with the program ever since.

Before reintroduction began, biologists determined the Blackfoot Valley provided ideal trumpeter swan habitat with approximately 30,000 acres of wetlands. Centuries ago, glaciers moved through the valley

creating a "knob and kettle" topography that Lewis called "Valley of Knobs." The kettles often have water and these

pothole wetlands provide habitat for 75 percent of the wildlife in the valley.

Trumpeter swans need shallow wetland areas with cattails,

bulrushes and subsurface vegetation, muskrat houses or islands for nesting and preening, and open water to learn to fly.

Helmville teacher Stacy Mannix held a cygnet during the banding process.

"It was magical. It felt like it was melting into you," she said.

Pat Hansen may be reached via e-mail at phansen@blackfoot.net.

 

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