Trumpeter swans may soon again be nesting in the Madison Valley.
A project at the O’Dell Creek wetlands on the Granger and Longhorn Ranches south of Ennis is aimed at re-establishing nesting trumpeter swans in the Madison Valley for the first time in several decades, said Tom Hinz, Montana Wetlands Legacy Partnership coordinator in Bozeman.
“Back when the Madison Valley had no dams in it and the wetlands hadn’t been drained, we’re confident there were nesting trumpeters in that area,” Hinz said.
The O’Dell Creek wetlands restoration project has been a nearly eight-year effort to restore wetlands that had been drained in the 1950s to try and provide better grazing for cattle.
The restoration project is ongoing, he said. Nearly 600 acres of wetlands have already been restored, along with miles of stream.
O’Dell Creek is a spring creek that starts just south of the Varney Bridge Road south of Ennis. By the time the many small channels collect enough water to really be considered a creek, it’s on the Granger Ranch and paralleling the Madison River.
Historically, the O’Dell Creek wetlands were home to a wide variety of bird and aquatic life, Hinz said. That life is rapidly coming back with the wetland restoration, but it has taken time for the aquatic vegetation to rejuvenate enough to accommodate nesting trumpeter swans.
“There’s some pretty good nesting habitat out there now,” he said. “We’re confident now that there’s enough restoration that’s gone on out there now that the area would support nesting trumpeter swans.”
The Rocky Mountain trumpeter swan populations in the U.S. have struggled over the years and now number about 70 breeding pairs, which breed in the Blackfoot and Mission Valleys along with Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Breeding pairs also nest in places in Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Oregon, according to information on The Trumpeter Swan Society’s website.
Centuries ago, trumpeter swans were killed mainly for their feathers, which adorned women’s hats in Europe and the east coast, Hinz said.
“There are records from Hudson Bay Company of bales of dried trumpeter skins,” he said.
The killing, coupled with loss of habitat, doomed populations in many parts of the West.
The process to reintroduce nesting trumpeters back to the Madison Valley will be fairly straight forward. For five years, Hinz and the partners involved in the project will release baby swans, or cygnets, on O’Dell Creek each summer. When released, the cygnets won’t be able to fly. They’ll be taken care of by a surrogate mother who also can’t fly. She’ll be the protector for the cygnets until they can fly.
The family will live in a large pen on O’Dell Creek. Once the cygnets can fly, they’ll leave and scientists will go back in and re-capture the mother, he said.
But the idea is the cygnets released at O’Dell Creek will return to nest in three years.
“It’s their innate behavior to return to the wetlands where they first gained flight,” Hinz said.
However, swans won’t breed until they’re three years old and commonly don’t have successful broods for a few years after that. This is one reason why their numbers take a while to recover.
The O’Dell Creek swan reintroduction project will be similar to a successful project in the Blackfoot Valley, northeast of Missoula, where landowners, state and federal wildlife agencies and the Blackfoot Challenge partnership worked together to bring nesting trumpeter swans back to the area.
It took five years for the swans to begin nesting in the Blackfoot Valley and so Hinz is planning the same time frame for O’Dell Creek.
Jeff Lazslo is the owner of the Granger Ranch and has worked hard on developing the partnership to restore the wetlands.
Partners in the wetland restoration and swan reintroduction projects include Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, PPL Montana, the Natural Resource and Conservation Service, the Audubon Society and the Madison River Foundation.
“It’s quite an honor to be chosen as the site for the (swan reintroduction) and I think very exciting. It certainly adds a dimension to what we’re doing,” Lazslo said. “It’s extremely gratifying.”
The swans will be released in early August. In preparation for their arrival, the Madison River Foundation is holding a work day at O’Dell Creek to build the enclosure that will keep the swans safe from predators.
The enclosure will be square and about 300 feet on each side. It will consist of fence posts and four-foot fencing, Hinz said. Once the swan cygnets mature and leave, then the fencing will be taken down, but the posts will remain for next year’s swans.
Folks interested in helping the Madison River Foundation build the fence for the swans can meet at 9 a.m. this Friday at Lions Club Park. Volunteers need to bring rubber boots, hip boots or waders, sunscreen, bug spray, hats and gloves. Lunch will be provided along with water.
If you are interested in volunteering, call the Madison River Foundation at 682-3148.