O’DELL CREEK – More than 40 people gathered at the Granger Ranch on Thursday for the release of five 10-week-old trumpeter swans cygnets, symbolizing a ongoing project to restore wetlands habitat in the Madison Valley.
The cygnets, or baby swans, were raised in Jackson, Wyo. by the Wyoming Wetlands Society and won’t be able to fly for another four to six weeks. To watch over the young birds a mature, flightless female trumpeter swan was released on the pond along O’Dell Creek a week earlier to act as a surrogate mother until the young birds take flight.
Tom Hinz, coordinator for the Montana Wetlands Legacy Partnership, took the opportunity to thank the organizations that made the project possible, including the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, PPL Montana, the Madison River Foundation and Montana Audubon.
“This is the culmination of about nine years worth of work out here on the Granger Ranch, which all of our conservation partners have helped facilitate both with conservation easements and investments in returning this land to wet conditions as they are now,” said Hinz. “It completes the cycle of restoring this floodplain to this wetted condition, which is the way it was historically.”
As the audience gathered to get a good look at the cygnets’ release, one bird was taken out of its plastic dog crate and passed among representatives from different organizations involved with the project for a photo opportunity. While the cygnet was initially unnerved by the new surroundings and crowd of onlookers, it instinctively engaged its defense mechanism of playing dead once wrapped in a firm embrace. For many people, it was difficult to appreciate the size of the 30-pound bird with nearly seven-foot wingspan until they saw it up close.
“Now that we’ve done about 600 acres of wetland restoration out here, we have sufficient habitat to bring the trumpeter swan, which is a native bird to this area, back here to nest,” explained Hinz to the group. “When they migrate out of here this winter and head down to Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and then come back in the spring, we’re hoping they come right back to this spot to nest.”
Drew Reed, executive director of the Wyoming Wetlands Society, carefully handled the bird before releasing all five of them into the pond.
“This is where they’re going to take their first flights, and this is where they’re going to calibrate their compass,” said Reed.
“We’ve had birds migrate 600 miles as cygnets and return to the site,” added Bill Long of the WWS, who was there to assist Reed with the handling and release of the birds after driving them up from Jackson earlier Thursday morning.
As the birds were released from the crates and waddled out into the pond, taking in their new surroundings, Tom Hinz reflected on the bigger picture of the conservation project.
“In a way, it’s about swans, and in another way it isn’t about swans at all,” he said. “It’s about water and this landscape and the community of people that has made this happen, that’s really the big deal.”