Photograph by Richard Sonnen
Rescued from the brink of extinction
The story of North America's Trumpeter Swan restoration is filled with partnerships, adventure, and educational leadership.
The historic breeding and wintering range of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) once covered much of North America. The population was severely depleted by subsistence hunting and over 125 years of commercial swan skin harvest by hunters and trappers for the Hudson Bay Company (Banko). Many thousands of skins were shipped to Europe between 1772 and the late 1800s.
In 1929, the National Park Service began a survey to determine the population status of Trumpeter Swans. By 1932, they had found 31 swans in Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, 26 on the Red Rock Lakes in the Centennial Valley of Montana, and 12 others in the surrounding region. Ornithologists had little hope for their continuing existence.
At the time, these were thought to be the only birds remaining for the entire species. In response, in 1935 Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge was created in Montana to protect this small remnant. Later, other previously unknown and unrecorded remnant populations of Trumpeters were found in western Canada and in parts of Alaska.
In 1959, when Alaskan nesting areas were first surveyed, the total number of wild Trumpeter Swans had increased to at least 1,914, including 1,124 in Alaska, 127 in western Canada, 631 in Greater Yellowstone, and 32 on national refuges elsewhere in the western United States.
Trumpeter Swans and their eggs from the Red Rock Lakes area were used in early restoration programs at four western refuges in the late 1930s and 1940s and a refuge in South Dakota in the 1960s. Restorations in Hennepin County Parks in Minnesota began in the mid-1960s and included the founding of The Trumpeter Swan Society.
Several key Midwest state and province restoration programs began in the 1980s (Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario). The Midwest states also flew to Alaska to collect eggs for their restoration programs. Zoos, private breeders, decoy-rearing and "seeing what swans will do" all played a role in the early years of restoration. In the 1990s, Iowa and Ohio began their state restoration programs.
Role of The Trumpeter Swan Society
Behind the scenes and also leading the way was TTSS. We provided these state and provincial restoration efforts the best scientific swan expertise and research, and a strong "swan network" of researchers, biologists, and managers to make the flight back to recovery easier and more effective.
For example, our biennial Swan Conferences since 1969 have gathered and shared the latest research about swans to swan managers, biologists, agencies, and Flyways.
Through the support of our donors, we continue to work across all four Flyways (Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic) with state and federal agencies, non profits, private citizens and a host of partners.
We are on the Swan Committee of each Flyway, advocating for Trumpeter Swan needs, addressing issues, reviewing and helping write swan management plans, and much more. We are your voice to assure the vitality and welfare of wild Trumpeter Swans.
We invite you to explore the issues in the Flyway Swan Populations (Pacific Coast, Rocky Mountain, Interior) and what your support will help us do on your behalf for swans.
This amazing story of the Trumpeter Swan beginning its return in North America is part of the larger inspirational story of how a species can return from extinction. The story is not finished. You can help write the next chapter.
Trumpeter Swans today
In 2015, there were more than 63,000 Trumpeters. This is an incredible increase from the 3,700 swans counted in 1968, at the time of the first range-wide Trumpeter Swan survey count. However, Trumpeter Swans are still missing from nearly two thirds of their original range.
Because Trumpeters were gone from most of the North American continent for more than a century, they have the lowest genetic diversity of any waterfowl species that has been studied. We do not know if this lack of diversity will affect the long term success of vulnerable populations such as the nesting flocks in Greater Yellowstone, which have not thrived, but are managing to not significantly decline.
The major threats facing Trumpeter Swans across the continent are:
- The impact of a changing climate on wetland and upland habitats used by Trumpeter Swans throughout the year.
- Continuing mortality threats from lead poisoning and power line collisions.
- Loss of quality winter habitat including wetlands and loss of farm lands where crop residues have been important winter food resources.
- Potential hunting conflicts between Trumpeter Swan recovery and Tundra Swan hunting.
- A reduction in funding by agencies to address swan management and restoration issues, secure quality habitat, and to fund swan research.
We are committed to addressing these challenges with your help.
How you can help