Agate talks with Carrol Henderson, Supervisor of the Minnesota DNR Nongame Wildlife Program, about a new proposal by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) that could lead to a hunting season on swans in the Mississippi Flyway, where they are currently protected as nongame species. Public comment is accepted until October 15 on the Draft Environmental Assessment for “A Proposal to Establish a Framework for General Swan Hunting Seasons in the Atlantic, Mississippi and Central Flyways.” Northern states in the Mississippi Flyway include Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Agate: What species of swans are found in Minnesota? Is there currently a hunting season on these swans?
Henderson: There are two species of native swans in Minnesota—trumpeter swans and tundra swans. Trumpeter swans are a native nesting species and tundra swans are a native species that nests in northern regions including Alaska, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories. The tundra swans migrate through Minnesota in spring and fall en route to wintering areas on the east coastal regions of Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland. Both species are totally protected by state and federal law. In fact, the entire region of the Mississippi Flyway (which is one of four waterfowl flyway zones in the US) is totally closed to hunting of either species of swan.
Agate: When did the MN DNR Nongame Wildlife Program’s work on a recovery effort for trumpeter swans begin, and what was the goal? How was it funded, and where does the population stand now?
Henderson: I first proposed reintroduction of trumpeter swans in 1982 when I was in the DNR Section of Wildlife. Everyone else there had written them off as an extirpated species, but I felt they deserved a second chance. I co-wrote the restoration plan for trumpeter swans with U of MN wildlife professor Jim Cooper. Section of Wildlife chief Roger Holmes specified that he supported the restoration work but only if it were funded with voluntary donations from the new Nongame Wildlife Checkoff* from Minnesota citizens. Roger also said that the swan was to be reintroduced to become a protected nongame wildlife species and not a game species, so he didn’t want game and fish funds or federal Pittman-Robertson funds to be used for the restoration work. We spent about $500,000 of citizen donations on the checkoff over 25 years to restore the swans, and are now up to at least 1700 nesting pairs.
Agate: The USFWS is proposing new regulations related to hunting of swans, spurred by issues in the Central and Atlantic flyways where there is currently a hunting season on tundra swans. What does this have to do with the swans in the Mississippi flyway, where both tundra and trumpeter swans are currently protected as nongame species?
Henderson: Hunting is currently allowed for tundra swans in five states of the Central and Atlantic Flyways: North and South Dakota, Montana, North Carolina, and Virginia. Some trumpeter swans occur within those flyways and flyway game biologists felt that it was unfortunate that sometimes swan hunters in those five states accidentally shot trumpeter swans and were in violation of federal law so they got ticketed. It is very difficult for hunters to distinguish trumpeter swans from tundra swans so the waterfowl biologists suggested about four years ago that they change federal regulations to permit the incidental taking of trumpeter swans by allowing a “generic swan season” in the Atlantic and Central Flyways so that hunters could shoot either species of swan and not be in violation of the law. Then, without any logic or justification, they added the Mississippi flyway to this proposed regulation in the proposed “Environmental Assessment” even though no swan hunting is allowed for any swans in the Mississippi Flyway and therefore there was no problem with “incidental taking” of trumpeter swans since there was no tundra swan season.
Agate: Do you believe that there is valid justification for this change, as it relates to swans in the Mississippi flyway? Why or why not?
Henderson: This dilemma has a very simple solution. A hunter who accidentally takes a trumpeter swan in the course of the tundra swan hunt should have the swan confiscated. The hunter should be issued a warning citation but not fined. We had a comparable situation in Minnesota in the past where Ross’ geese were a protected species. Most hunters were not able to distinguish a Ross’ goose from a snow goose, so Department of Natural Resources Conservation officers would confiscate Ross’ goose but not ticket the hunter. This simple solution would take care of the problem, and I do not feel that the numbers of trumpeter swans taken under this scenario would be to the detriment of our continental recovery of trumpeter swan populations.
None of the states in the Atlantic or Central Flyways have invested any effort or funding for restoration of trumpeter swans. However, northern states in the Mississippi Flyway including Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan have invested at least a couple million dollars over the past 35 years to restore trumpeter swans. Minnesota does not and has never had a tradition or season for hunting swans. The public, including hunters, largely considers them as a protected, nongame wildlife species. There is no apparent interest by Minnesota waterfowl hunters or conservation organizations to hunt swans.
At any place in Minnesota where swan hunting would occur, it is expected that the number of trumpeter swans would “swamp” the numbers of tundra swans present, and a majority of the birds killed would be trumpeter swans—so a supposed “generic swan season” would be in reality a trumpeter swan season involving take of locally breeding birds. Compounding this problem, in Minnesota family groups of trumpeter swans do not tend to leave their natal marshes until severe freeze-up occurs in mid- to late November. Any hunting seasons in the fall would likely lead to killing local trumpeter swans in their breeding marshes, and it could be years until such areas are re-occupied by swans.
Tundra swans would not be present in southern Mississippi Flyway states during a generic swan season, only wintering trumpeter swans—in southern Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, and in other southern Mississippi states as the wintering range expands. So a generic southerly swan season would be a de facto trumpeter swan season that would result in killing the very swans that are attempting to restore historic migratory traditions for that species. Wintering swans in those southerly states represent a mixture of swans from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa. All of those states have a stake in protecting their migratory trumpeter swans while on their wintering areas.
Agate: Does the public have any input into this proposal? Can people comment on this proposed change?
Henderson: People have until October 15 to comment through a comment page on the federal government portal system. In your comments, refer to Docket No. HQ-MB-2017-0028 and the Swan EA: Proposal to Establish a Framework for a General Swan Hunting Season in the Atlantic, Mississippi and Central Flyways. Comments by e-mail or regular mail will not be accepted. If you’re interested to see what others have said, submitted comments may be viewed here.
Agate: What do you most appreciate about trumpeter swans?
Henderson: Trumpeter swans are the largest waterfowl species in the world, weighing up to 35 pounds. They are a stunning and graceful species that give a touch beauty and elegance to our wetlands and inspire awe among citizens ranging from children to birders and hunters as well. After an absence of over 100 years in the state, the trumpeter swans have made a dramatic recovery. Trumpeter Swans are a gift that Minnesota citizens have given to themselves through their donations to the Nongame Wildlife Checkoff.
If people would like more information about the restoration story of the swans, they can read “Visions of Swans,” which I wrote for the March-April issue of the 2017 Conservation Volunteer.
Agate: Thank you, Carrol, for giving our readers some background on this issue, and for all your efforts on behalf of nongame wildlife.
* Formerly known as the ‘Chickadee Checkoff,’ this program provides a way for Minnesota taxpayers to contribute to the state’s Nongame Wildlife Program by making a donation on their tax forms.
Sincere thanks to photographer Dominique Braud for sharing his outstanding images. Find more of his work on his website!