As the West’s trumpeter swans recover, more wind up shot in Utah

Wildlife officials close Utah swan hunt early after 20-bird cap on trumpeter deaths was breached for 4th year in row.

(Phil Douglass, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) Trumpeter swans.

Utah waterfowl hunters continue to shoot down excessive numbers or rare trumpeter swans, prompting wildlife officials to once again close Utah’s swan hunt early.

Despite several measures aimed at discouraging the killing of trumpeters during Utah’s 73-day swan season, the swan harvest notched its 20th trumpeter on Nov. 17, triggering an automatic closure for the fourth year in a row.

Utah is one of nine states that allow the hunting of tundra swans, which are far more common than their big-bodied cousins the trumpeters, which are North America’s largest birds by weight. While it’s not illegal to shoot trumpeters in Utah, it is strongly discouraged. In response to excessive trumpeter deaths, the Utah Wildlife Board last year mandated a 5-year “waiting period” for adults who bag a trumpeter swan to get another shot at a Utah swan tag. For juveniles, the ban lasts three years.

That move apparently didn’t accomplish its goal. For each of the past four years, the 20-bird threshold was reached earlier than the prior year. At about 0.2%, Trumpeters account for a tiny but growing share of the swan harvest, according to the Division of Wildlife Resources.

Utah hunters were already on notice that should this trend continue, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may cut Utah’s allotment of swan permits, currently set at 2,750. Utah hunters bag about 1,200 swans each year.

“To prevent the loss of future swan hunting opportunities, hunters need to be particularly careful to identify swan species before shooting,” states Utah’s 2022 waterfowl guidebook. “Although a small amount of trumpeter harvest is legal — to allow for occasional misidentification — the hunt is only intended for tundra swans. You don’t want to be the person that gets the hunt shut down for everyone else.”

It’s not clear if the problem is the result of sloppy hunting or an increase in the number of trumpeters passing through Utah on their way to winter habitat. The latter would be good news for trumpeter conservation, and DWR officials believe that to be the case.

“We’ve been observing more trumpeters in the last few years than we’ve previously seen. There are more trumpeter swans starting to move through Utah for some reason,” said Heather Talley, DWR’s upland game and migratory game bird coordinator. “Distinguishing features between tundra and trumpeter swans 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.”

This year’s swan season opened Oct. 1 and closed 24 days early on Nov. 18, the day after the 20th trumpeter turned up at the DWR checkin station. Previous closures occurred Dec. 6, 2019, Nov. 27, 2020 and Nov. 26, 2021, indicating a steady trend in the wrong direction.

To get a swan tag, Utah hunters are required to take an online course every year to remind them how to distinguish the two swan species at a distance. Weighing between 20 and 25 pounds and kept airborne on a 70-inch wingspan, trumpeters are nearly twice as heavy as tundra swans. Their eyes appear to be part of their bills, while tundra swans’ eyes appear distinct from the bill, which sport a telltale yellow mark just in front of each eye.

Successful hunters must bring their birds to a checkin station at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge within 72 hours so officials can record the bird’s species and other data.

Trumpeters were hunted to near extinction a century ago by market hunters aiming to cash in on the big bird’s plumage, then a fashionable adornment to women’s apparel, and soft skins, which made excellent powder puffs.

Small populations survived in protected areas, such as Yellowstone National Park, where hunting was not allowed, but these swans lost their migratory knowledge, which is believed to be passed down from one generation to the next.

As the U.S. swan population rebounded, thanks to reintroductions and conservation efforts, trumpeters have increasingly taken flight from the safety of their summer redoubts to winter in warmer areas. But these travelers are at risk of getting shot as demonstrated in Utah every fall.

While tundra swan populations can withstand hunting pressure, the loss of migrating trumpeters could impede that species’ continued recovery across its historic North American range, according to some advocates.

But DWR contenda trumpeter recovery remains on track and the Utah hunt is not doing much to derail that progress.

“The restrictions on Utah’s swan hunt — quota, permit numbers, mandatory harvest reporting — are to help conserve the Greater Yellowstone trumpeter swan population,” Talley said. “That swan population has continued to increase despite the swan hunt in Utah. We get very few band recoveries in Utah from the Greater Yellowstone swan population, so trumpeter swan harvest in Utah is likely not impacting that population or that population’s recovery.”

Meanwhile, research is underway to better understand the migratory habits of trumpeter swans. One study examines the chemical isotopes in swan feathers, which provides clues to where a migrating bird has been.

DWR has taken feathers from trumpeters killed this year and last year and passed them along to biologists conducting a genetics study.

“This should allow us to identify where the swans migrated from with the help of isotope analysis,” Talley said. “Biologists will compare the feathers’ isotopic signatures with those of feathers recovered from swan populations in northern states during the summer months.”

DWR also plans to secure GPS transmitters to swans to glean additional information about their movements.

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