Swans are under the gun right now.
Members of seven Chippewa Indian tribes in portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan can hunt both species of North American swan — trumpeter and tundra — under permission given this year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The season opened Saturday.
Tundra swans are legal game in eight states, but trumpeter swans are protected everywhere. Killing one, even unintentionally, can draw a large fine.
But because swans are part of their hunting tradition, Chippewa Indians have been given special permission to hunt them this year.
According to Peter David, wildlife biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fishing and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), the hunt is intended for tundra swans, but incidental take of trumpeter swans is anticipated.
That may be because tundras and trumpeters look so much alike that identifying them on the wing is almost impossible. And while tundra swans are migrants moving through the area, trumpeter swans are local nesters. That could make trumpeters the easier bird to target.
Harvest of trumpeters, incidental or intended, is limited to 10 birds total in the three states. The limit on tundra swans is two per day through the Dec. 31 end of the season. Any swans killed are to be brought to registration points for identification. If and when 10 trumpeters have been killed, the entire hunt ends.
Back from the brink
Trumpeter swans were here when the first European settlers arrived, but they were killed for food and much of their habitat was plowed under. They disappeared from their historic breeding territory in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
In 1960, an intense and successful restoration program to ensure the birds’ survival began. It worked. An estimated 10,000 trumpeter swans can be found in the region today.
Taking 10 of these birds would have a tiny impact on the overall population.
But the emotional impact it would have on humans could be substantial.
Swans have always been viewed as special. In literature, film, music and dance, the swan is a symbol of peace and tranquillity. They are part of our mythology.
Swans also have special meaning to Indians. The bird figures in religion, stories and beliefs.
Concern that trumpeter swans will be shot is particularly strong among volunteers who have worked for years with those birds on the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area north of Grantsburg, Wis.
Some of those people have been very close to the birds, physically and emotionally. During the annual swan roundup there, when young birds are captured for banding, volunteers often hold the birds in their laps.
Shooting trumpeters is a horrifying idea for them. Some trumpeter swan supporters already have started a Facebook page to oppose the hunt.
A collision of concerns
With a substantial and stable population, the large and graceful tundra swans are considered the epitome of watchable wildlife.
They migrate through Minnesota spring and fall as they move from their arctic breeding grounds to the coastal waters of Virginia and North Carolina for the winter. They rest and refuel each fall in Mississippi River shallows near Wabasha, Minn., where they typically draw a crowd.
The lands designated for the hunt are described in treaties signed by the tribes and the U.S. government in 1837 and 1842, according to David. That land covers all or parts of nine counties in the east central part of Minnesota. Only one Minnesota band, the Mille Lacs band of Chippewa, can participate in the hunt.
The number of hunters and the number of swans they’re expected to shoot will be small, David said. He expects “minimal” hunter participation, perhaps 200 hunters.
“Swans were traditionally harvested,” said David. “This hunt is a re-establishment of that tradition,” he explained.
I have no objection to hunting game birds. If swans are considered fair game, so be it.
How unfortunate, though, that a swan population that was re-created now conflicts with a hunting tradition that also is being re-created.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.