Once common in the Rocky Mountain West, trumpeter swans have been a rare sight for more than a century after hunters blasted them from the sky to cash in on their skins and plumage, then in demand for women’s hats and other accessories.
Now the bird, North America’s largest and the world’s heaviest capable of flight, is coming back strong in parts of its historic range, thanks to reintroductions and prohibitions on hunting them. Yet, in Utah, they are falling in growing numbers to hunters gunning for a different species of swan.
It remains legal to shoot trumpeters in Nevada and Utah, at the southern reaches of the species’ range, if the hunter mistakes them for their smaller-bodied cousin, the tundra swan, which can be hard to distinguish from a trumpeter in flight. Utah hunters killed very few trumpeters through the years, probably because few trumpeters migrated that far south from their summer range in Idaho and Montana.
That changed this year.
Swan hunters shot 20 migrating trumpeters this fall, forcing Utah wildlife officials to close the tundra swan hunt early and leaving them wondering how so many trumpeters wound up in Utah, which could bode well for the species’ future.
“There was a higher number of trumpeter swans harvested this year because there were more migrating through Utah than in previous years,” said Blair Stringham, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ migratory game bird program coordinator. “We also increased the number of swan permits in Utah from 2,000 to 2,700 this year, which meant more hunters were targeting swans than in past years.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires Utah and Nevada to close their swan hunts once a certain number of trumpeters are killed, a number that is set very low. In previous years, the trumpeter quota was 10 for Utah, five for Nevada, but the service doubled the quotas this year. Still, Utah hunters had never before hit the lower quotas and the highest number of trumpeters ever taken in a single season was seven.
Shooting a slow-flying, big-bodied bird may seem like a cinch, but swan hunting has a low success rate in Utah, around 40%. Stringham said 1,100 birds were bagged in this year’s hunt.
“It’s easy if you know what you are doing,” said hunter and author Hank Shaw, who bagged a tundra swan in 2013 while hunting in northern Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Distinguishing a tundra from a trumpeter swan in flight is not that difficult, he said, as long as you know what to look for — which Utah requires of hunters before issuing them a coveted swan permit.
Weighing as much as 33 pounds, trumpeters are twice as large as tundra swans and produce a sonorous call that gives them their name. Tundra swans’ heads are curved and have a yellow patch on the fleshy part of their black bills near the eyes. Trumpeter heads are blockier and the bills are entirely black.
“You wait for them to get close enough for you to be absolutely sure,” said Shaw, famous for turning his prey into exquisite meals. “I prefer to shoot the juveniles. Immature swans have dark feathers and you can distinguish them at 20 or 30 yards. They are better eating.”
Never listed as endangered
In recent decades, the Rocky Mountain population of trumpeters has rebounded in the wake of aggressive reintroduction programs in Northwestern states. The 20 trumpeters killed by Utah hunters won’t have an impact on a bird that now exceeds its target population of 10,000 adults and subadults, according to Gary Ivie, president-elect of the Trumpeter Swan Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the species recovery.
“The purpose of those quotas is to minimize population-level impacts of harvest to the Rocky Mountain trumpeter swans and ideally to avoid ‘hunter take’ of trumpeter swans as much as feasible,” Ivie wrote in an email. “Even if trumpeter swans were not authorized for take in Utah, some number of trumpeters would be taken by accident, mistakenly by hunters.”
Yellowstone National Park, where hunting has been banned since the 1870s, provided a safe haven for trumpeters back when they were targeted relentlessly, as well as year-round open water due to the region’s thermal features. By 1900, only 70 trumpeters were known to remain in the wild and the only known breeding population nested at Montana’s Red Rocks Lakes, which became a wildlife refuge in 1935 specifically to ensure the species’ survival.
The trumpeter swan was never listed under the Endangered Species Act, although some groups unsuccessfully lobbied for listing the Rocky Mountain population, which would have put an end to Utah swan hunting. While that population has come back from the brink, it has lost much of its migratory behavior.
So the trumpeters shot in Utah are not just any swans; they are travelers that would otherwise return north and convey their knowledge of migration to other swans. If they are not shot, these birds could help restore the species’ migratory patterns and expand its range south.
A small group of trumpeters, numbering about 200 swans, winters in Utah at Cutler Marsh in the Cache Valley, according to Stringham. Trumpeters have been seen on reservoirs on the Wasatch Back and as far south as Gunnison and at Browns Park on the Green River.
Three Westerns states — Montana, Utah and Nevada — allow tundra swan hunting, and Idaho is considering a hunt in its Panhandle counties. Twenty years ago, tundra swan hunting was controversial because of its potential impact on trumpeter recovery, so quotas were set very low and hunters were required to demonstrate an ability to distinguish between the two species. Hunters are also subject to strict reporting requirements to disclose how many days and where they hunted swans. Those who shoot a swan must bring the carcass to wildlife officials for inspection within 72 hours.
“It’s a big investment,” Stringham said. “We want to make sure we are doing the right thing.”
Law may not be helping
Hunting is hardly the most serious threat to trumpeters. Swans sometimes ingest old lead shot, which has been banned in waterfowl hunting for nearly 30 years, embedded in the muddy bottoms of ponds where they feed, leading to fatal poisoning. Between 1999 and 2005, lead poisoning is known to have killed 1,600 wintering trumpeters in Washington and British Columbia, according to the Pacific Flyway Council’s 2008 management plan.
As with most migratory birds, other threats to trumpeters include avian diseases, illegal shooting and collisions with power lines.
Few, if any, trumpeters were killed during hunts in Nevada and Utah a decade ago, and those states’ trumpeter quotas were increased incrementally.
Since 1995, Nevada swan hunters have killed a grand total of 16 trumpeters, according to Aaron Meier, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. Nevada swan hunters reached the trumpeter quota only once, in 2017, when the cap was five birds.
No one expected Utah hunters to take 20 trumpeters in a single season, Stringham said, but earlier this month, a 20th dead trumpeter was recorded by DWR officials, who ended the 63-day hunt two days early, on Dec. 6.
The high number of trumpeters killed in Utah may have been the result of an earlier than usual migration, spurred by a severe cold snap in October, according to Ivie. He and Shaw agreed that Utah’s increase in tundra swan permits may have also been a factor since it put more swan hunters in the field this fall.
But Shaw has another theory: Rules that allow swan hunters to keep trumpeters they kill give unscrupulous hunters an incentive to deliberately target the wrong swan.
“I suspect some are selfish hunters who just wanted to bag a trumpeter,” said Shaw, who lives in Folsom, Calif., and hunts in Utah every year.
Many hunters prize swans as a trophy, making it impossible for the meat to be eaten. That’s a shame, according to Shaw, a former newspaper journalist who writes about the culinary joys of game meat and foraged plants.
While rarely eaten, swan meat is full of delightful surprises.
“You would think it would be goosey, but it’s more ducky, tight grained, very flavorful,” Shaw said. “The fat was delicious. I plucked it all the way to the chin and used the neck as a sausage skin.”