Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, April 19, 2020

They Shoot Swans, Don't They?

Here's the link that's also at the bottom of this blog post. Comment on the SECOND issue.

Trumpeter Swan

On August 8, 1979, when my sister-in-law and I were visiting Yellowstone National Park, I added a stunningly beautiful bird to my lifelist—an endangered species that, at the time, could be seen only in Yellowstone and in the Red Rock Lakes area in Montana—the Trumpeter Swan.

I was thrilled to finally see this wonderful bird, the subject of E.B. White’s charming children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan. Historically, Trumpeter Swans bred in the United States from the West through Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, but they were wiped out by overhunting by the 1800s, and by the 1950s could be found only in that tiny area of Wyoming, Montana, and nearby Canada.

The first reintroduction programs in Minnesota, started in the late 1970s, were shaky, and during drought years in the 1980s and 1990s, many of the reintroduced birds succumbed to lead poisoning after ingesting old lead shot at the bottoms of lakes. Lead shot had been banned for waterfowl hunting in 1991 after a many-decades-long battle with the NRA and many hunters, despite how many waterfowl of all kinds died not from being shot but from picking up lead shot as grit. Even after it was banned, the lead shot already out there at the bottoms of lakes, rivers, and streams is still lurking today, ready to poison any creature who picks it up. When water levels are low, swans can reach the bottom in areas where shot has sat for decades.

Thanks to the Minnesota DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program and the blood, sweat, and tears of many nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation centers, many of the poisoned swans recovered and the swan’s population has expanded. But now that it’s thriving, the current administration’s Fish and Wildlife Service announced rather quietly last Wednesday that they plan to open a hunting season on swans this year. I learned about this on Friday, and the deadline is today, Monday, April 20, for all comments.

According to data presented right in the hunting proposal, they were originally setting a target of 110,000 birds to allow a hunt of eastern swans, which also include the beautiful Tundra Swans that migrate through--the two species are almost impossible to distinguish in flight. Indeed, one of the problems both swans have had in the Midwest is from being killed by hunters, who at least claim to have trouble distinguishing them from Snow Geese despite the large black patch on Snow Goose wings. But the count of both swans from the 2019 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey in the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways combined resulted in 92,819 birds, a full 15 percent below that target. So according to their own numbers, the eastern population of swans, including both Tundra and Trumpeters, is declining without a hunt. There is no "surplus population" when climate change, pollution and habitat degradation in the Chesapeake Bay where most Tundra Swans winter, and all kinds of other human-caused issues are right now hitting swans badly.

The number of waterfowl hunters in the United States has declined dramatically in recent decades. In 1970, duck hunters numbered about 2 million; in 2015, there were fewer than a million, and the ones who remain include a lot of non-conservationists. Now, rather than capitalize on getting non-hunting wildlife enthusiasts to work with hunters to help all wildlife thrive so the public can enjoy wildlife in a wider spectrum of uses, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been pandering to the worst elements of non-conservationist hunters. They started a Mourning Dove season over much of the upper Midwest in the early 2000s. Speaking for Duluth Audubon, I pleaded with the Minnesota DNR to keep the season closed just along the hawk migration corridor along the north shore of Lake Superior during American Kestrel migration, because kestrels are often mistaken for doves, and pleaded with them to restrict this entirely new hunt to non-toxic shot, They refused to even consider either request.

Then in 2010, the Minnesota DNR targeted another beloved nongame species, quietly opening a hunting season on Sandhill Cranes. And now, when most of us are dealing with the surreal issues of life during a global pandemic, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has just proposed opening a hunting season on swans! After spurning us twice before, I have absolutely no faith that the Minnesota DNR won't take immediately open a season on swans, too.

The Trumpeter Swan only exists in the Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic flyways thanks to being reintroduced, which was due to the hard work and funding of NONgame wildlife programs. This weekend, Carrol Henderson, past director of the Minnesota Nongame Wildlife Program, wrote:
Yesterday I was  by informed by Margaret Smith of The Trumpeter Swan Society that she had been notified by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that the pending Federal Register announcement for fall waterfowl hunting includes a new provision for general swan hunting seasons in the Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic flyways. Minnesota is in the Mississippi Flyway.  
The Federal Register posting occurred on March 19, but someone conveniently failed to notify people involved with Trumpeter Swan conservation until April 15, and the deadline for comments from the public is on Monday, April 20 at 10:59 PM!!!! [The website was down all weekend for scheduled maintenance, too.] While each state would need to individually approve such a season under the proposed guidelines, it opens the door to potentially creating a general swan season without adequate citizen input--as happened with the sandhill crane season in NW Minnesota. 
I'm begging all my listeners to PLEASE submit a comment by 10:59 pm Monday night (that's TONIGHT!) at the Federal RegistryAfter connecting to the link, look for the second item, “Migratory Bird Hunting: Proposed 2020-21 Framework for Migratory Bird Hunting Regulations,” and click on the box that says "Comment Now!" Please focus on why you oppose swan hunting specifically rather than attacking hunting or hunters in general. Many hunters—I hope and pray a majority—are still conservationists, and those deserve our appreciation. But we can't count on hunting groups to fight to protect nongame wildlife. So I'm begging you to comment on the Federal Registry today.

Trumpeter Swan

Here is the comment I submitted: 
I am strongly opposed to opening a swan season in the Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic flyways. By your own figures, the Eastern population is currently well below the 110,000 threshold originally set for opening a season, and the numbers appear to be declining--the most recent survey showed fewer than 93,000 swans. Tundra Swans are getting plenty of pressures from all kinds of issues in the Chesapeake Bay and on their tundra breeding grounds. The only reason we have Trumpeter Swans in this population at all is because of reintroductions funded by NONgame wildlife programs, and because so many Trumpeter Swans get poisoned by old lead shot still remaining in the bottoms of lakes and ponds--it was the NRA and hunters who fought so strenuously against banning lead shot for many decades after biologists and conservationists proved how damaging this shot is for waterfowl and all kinds of other birds--lead shot used over all those decades is still out there, and still poisoning swans. It has been the blood, sweat, and tears of wildlife rehabbers, without any funding or assistance from hunting groups, that helped keep the first reintroduced Trumpeter Swans alive and still helps swans poisoned by lead today.
The number of waterfowl hunters has declined by more than 50 percent since the 1970s. It is important to protect the interests of conservationist hunters, who have been funding waterfowl habitat via the Federal Duck Stamp for generations, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should also be focusing on protecting the interests of non-hunters. Many of us buy a Duck Stamp every year, too. We can and should be working together to protect all species, not alienating the growing numbers of wildlife photographers, birders, and families who love to get out to enjoy wildlife observation. In the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways, swans have been for generations NONgame wildlife. With swan numbers declining, there is no reason to open a season on them and many compelling reasons not to.
Trumpeter Swan