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Plan to allow trumpeter swan hunt has some crying foul

Trumpeter swans near Alexandria, Minn. Forum News Service file photo

ST. PAUL—A federal proposal to allow hunting of trumpeter swans is drawing criticism from some of those who helped restore the bird from the brink decades ago.

Regardless of whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal survives, Minnesota is unlikely to open a season on the birds anytime soon, and Wisconsin has no plans to do so either, officials from both states said.

But it's the principle, critics say: The trumpeter swan recovery was an effort funded by bird lovers to bring back a native animal for the sake of the animal and its environment — not so it could be shot and killed.

The rule proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service would allow states to propose hunting seasons that would allow the targeting of trumpeters. That would be a first for the contiguous 48 states.

Technically, seven bands of Chippewa Indians have held a swan-hunting season in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan since 2014. However, no swans — either tundra or trumpeter — have been shot, according to the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The request for the change came from officials in a handful of states that allow hunting of tundra swans, a more-plentiful swan that is essentially indistinguishable from trumpeters when flying. As trumpeter numbers expand, they could mix in with migrating tundras, and hunters shouldn't be criminalized for shooting trumpeters by accident, Fish and Wildlife Service officials said Thursday. It's unclear how many, if any, trumpeters have been mistakenly shot in this way, but populations of trumpeters are not high in those states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, North Carolina and Virginia.

Minnesota and Wisconsin could have opened tundra swan hunting seasons 30 years ago, but both have eschewed the idea because of the risk of trumpeters being shot.

Brad Bortner, chief of migratory bird management for the Fish and Wildlife Service emphasized that the proposal is hardly a done deal — just one of several changes to waterfowl hunting under consideration.

"There is no current proposal to open a trumpeter swan season," he said. "We are looking at options."

The public comment period for the proposal ends Sunday.

Critics include Carrol Henderson, nongame-wildlife leader of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and a hero among swan lovers for his and others' efforts in the 1980s to steal eggs from nesting trumpeters in Alaska as part of a reintroduction program that became a remarkable success story.

From 50 eggs in 1986, Minnesota boasts a total trumpeter swan population today of perhaps 30,000 birds, including more than 20,000 nesting adults. Before that, the gracefully necked white birds had been extinguished from the state since the 1880s.

The population is now so healthy that it can withstand hunting, state and federal biologists agree.

But that doesn't mean we should shoot them, said Henderson, who has called the plan — which would allow nearly every state to open a trumpeter hunting season — a "convoluted and controversial strategy that is grossly unacceptable." (That's his personal opinion; the DNR has yet to give official comments.)

Unlike other conservation success stories, such as Canada geese and wild turkeys, the trumpeter's return didn't include funds from hunting-related sources. The $500,000 spent over 25 years came from donations to a nongame wildlife fund made by taxpayers on Minnesota income tax forms, as well as matching funds from the proceeds of conservation license plate fees. And it was all under the promise that the bird would not become a legal target for hunters.

"We need to honor the intentions of the people who made it possible," said Henderson, himself a lifelong waterfowl hunter.

The Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to reach a decision by spring. The soonest hunting season that could be affected would be fall 2019.