Why are Utah hunters killing so many trumpeter swans?

(Tribune file photo) A trumpeter swan is seen in this 2001 photo.

For the second year in a row, Utah wildlife officials shut down the state’s swan season early after hunters killed an excessive number of rare trumpeter swans, which can be mistook for tundra swans.

The large-bodied trumpeters were hunted to near extinction a century ago, but a few pockets survived in remote parts of Idaho and Montana where they could find open water year round. Now they appear to be migrating again in large numbers and consequently finding themselves in hunters’ crosshairs, according to Blair Stringham, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ migratory game bird program coordinator.

“We just saw a ton more trumpeters than we have any other year other than last year. There’s probably just more [trumpeter] swans starting to move through Utah for some reason,” Stringham said. “It’s more likely that’s why we’re seeing more [getting shot] is because there are more out there and probably because the population is increasing, but we don’t have the survey data specifically to back that up.”

Each fall, swans migrate from the north passing through the Great Salt Lake and other bodies of open water en route to their winter quarters. But DWR is not sure where Utah’s increasing numbers of trumpeters are coming from; its biologists are conducting research to figure that out.

In response to the rebound in trumpeter numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year increased the maximum number that could be killed during Utah’s swan hunt to 20, a tiny portion of the 2,750 permits issued each year. That threshold was reached Friday, 16 days before the end of the season that runs Oct. 3 to Dec. 13, according to DWR.

“We realize the early closure means that some permit holders may not harvest a swan,” Stringham said, “but we appreciate their understanding and support of our efforts to protect the trumpeter swan population.”

The same thing occurred last year, when the 20-trumpeter cap was hit about 60 days into the season.

Stringham said Utah hunters generally see a 40% success rate, resulting in the harvest of about 1,200 swans each year. Successful hunters are required to present their swans to wildlife officials within 72 hours so they can keep close track of any trumpeters that wind up dead. Hunters report how many days they were in the field and where they hunted.

This year, officials kept feather samples which they hope to use to identify where the swans migrated from with the help of isotope analysis, according to Stringham. Biologists will compare the feathers’ isotopic signatures with those of feathers recovered from swan populations in northern states during the summer months.

In previous years, Utah hunters rarely brought in even a handful of trumpeters, so it was surprising that the 20-bird limit has been reached in back-to-back seasons.

While it is strongly discouraged, shooting protected trumpeters is legal in Utah, but only if they are mistaken for a tundra swan and shot by someone holding a valid swan tag. And that is happening more frequently, which is a good sign that the big bird is on a flight to recovery.

“About three years ago, I started seeing three or four flocks of them, which is really odd because I hadn’t seen that many before,” Stringham said.

But it could also indicate some swan hunters are deliberately targeting trumpeters, which make for coveted trophies, but Stringham said he has no evidence to support that.

“We don’t survey our hunters when they’re out there hunting or when they come here [with their kills],” he said. “We don’t ask them if they’re specifically targeting trumpeter swans.”

Alternately, the high incidence of trumpeter kills could be the result of hunters being sloppy. The two species are much different but are still hard to distinguish in flight unless you know what to look for. Hunters are required to take an online lesson on distinguishing the two birds before they are issued a swan permit.

At up to 33 pounds, trumpeters are North America’s largest bird, about twice the size of their smaller cousins, and they make a distinctive 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.

Such distinguishing features can be hard to make out at a distance and in poor light, but silhouetted against an early morning sky, the large, low-flying birds are a fairly easy shot.