JACKSON, Wyo. — Young trumpeter swans, or cygnets, aren’t always cute little white fluff balls.
Given a year to grow, they transform into 20-to-25-pound birds with a 6-or-7-foot wingspan and serpentine necks. They’re not always keen on being handled, either.
After a recent Wyoming Wetlands Society’s swan roundup, 50 volunteers know firsthand. At the nonprofit’s Boyles Hill pond west of Jackson, kayakers herded 21 pubescent, year-old cygnets. Volunteers then sorted and banded the bunch.
The roundup, part of an 18-year-old breeding program, is a critical piece to the re-establishment of the trumpeter throughout the Rocky Mountains, said Bill Long, co-founder and board President of the Wyoming Wetlands Society.
“We have the only genetically suited breeding flock in the Rocky Mountain region,” said Long, who is the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s north Jackson game warden.
Trumpeter swans, North America’s largest waterfowl, are protected by the Endangered Species Act only in Minnesota. But there are just 454 breeding swans throughout the entire trumpeter range in the Greater Yellowstone Area, Long said.
Market hunting driven by the popularity of swan skins nearly obliterated the trumpeter in the 19th century. It was widely believed that the species had become extinct until a small non-migratory population was found in remote mountain valleys in the Greater Yellowstone Area.
Trumpeter swans are considered a “rank two” species that is still at risk in Wyoming’s wildlife plan, Game and Fish nongame biologist Susan Patla said.
“That’s because of the low population, extremely limited distribution and the fact that they don’t put out many young,” she said. “In other words, their population increases very slowly over time.” Some 48 percent of the Greater Yellowstone Area’s trumpeter swans — 218 — were reared in the wetlands society’s breeding program.
The 21 cygnets rounded up Friday had clipped wings and were being sent to Montana and eastern Oregon to bolster repopulation efforts.
“Two years out, you can’t tell if they were wild or captive,” Long said.
At the roundup, volunteers were given various jobs, including bear-hugging the behemoth birds.
Drew Reed, the Wyoming Wetlands Society’s executive director, determined where each was headed.
“No band, huh,” Reed said to one swan-clutching volunteer. “It’s a wild bird. Go ahead and let it go.” Swans behave like cattle, Long said, which explains why a trumpeter that was fully capable of flight would submit itself to being captured.
Along those lines, Francesca Hammer’s role in the Boyles Hill roundup was that of an aquatic sheepdog. Hammer, who has volunteered for the past six years, used her kayak to help herd the young swans into a fenced pen.
“The first time I volunteered, I was just driving down the road,” Hammer said. “They said, ‘Do you want to hold a swan?’ ‘Well, yeah,’ I told them.”
Hammer’s enthusiasm underscores what Long said has made for a successful organization: People like swans.
“Swans became a way for people to become attached to wetlands,” Long said.
Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com