Restoring the world, beginning with swans

Swan pair flying over Pablo Reservoir.
A pair of Trumpeter Swans flying over Pablo Reservoir on an August evening. The swans were locally extirpated in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Today, more than 250 resident swans are here.

On a summer morning in 1996, retired biology teacher Harold Knapp released the first of 19 Trumpeter Swans as part of a re-introduction project conducted by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The goal was to re-establish a breeding flock in the valley. The birds had been brought to Montana from Oregon.

Knapp understood the inestimable value of helping young people to do real work in the real world, so he partnered with the Fish and Game Department to let them experience fieldwork outside the classroom. Knapp had grown up at Round Butte near Ronan. He became a science teacher at Hellgate High in Missoula, where he was chair of the science department, winning many honors and awards. For example, he was named outstanding biology teacher of Montana by the National Association of Biology Teachers in 1968.  

Naturally, he was drawn to the project. What could be better than recreating a swan population in this place where they had once flourished? A river with a swan is an entirely different order than a river with no swans. Their graceful white beauty along with their devoted constancy,  they usually form monogamous relationships for life, have gained them a prominent place in the folklore and literature of many peoples. Just as we use mountains to imagine the concept of “majestic,” swans help us imagine beauty, grace, serenity, love, and passion. In Hinduism, swans symbolize the relatedness of the material world to the spiritual realm, creatures at home in both water and sky. They are living metaphors, tangible realities that are also bridges to the invisible world.

When the swan reintroduction project began, the only Trumpeter Swans seen in the valley were during migration—visitors that stopped briefly coming from or returning to Canada. No breeding pairs had lived here for decades.

Local Trumpeter Swans did not survive the Homesteading Era early in the Twentieth Century, due mainly to subsistence hunting by both settlers and Natives. The big birds are tasty and easily hunted. Commercial pressure also played a part. We know that nationally there was a market for their hides and feathers for quilts, pillows, and mattresses and the feathers were desired for women’s hats and garments. Swan quill pens were also popular, and they were on the market in London by 1736 in bundles of 25 or 100. The Hudson Bay Company’s hunters harvested about 108,000 swans between 1823-1880, and the numbers declined precipitously after that. Many thousands of swan skins ended up in Europe. The company had a trading post at Fort Connah near Post Creek in the Heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Other environmental pressures also contributed to the disappearance of the swans. As the valley became more agricultural, many of the pothole ponds that dotted the landscape, dating back more than 10,000 years to the last ice age, were dewatered for agriculture. The influx of people after the Reservation was opened to non-Indian homesteading in 1910 caused many changes to the flora and fauna of the area.

The passing away of swans on the Reservation was part of a much bigger story.  In 1929, the National Park Service began a survey to figure out how many swans remained in North America. Over the next four years they found 31 swans in Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, 26 near the park at the Red Rock Lakes in the Centennial Valley of Montana, and 12 others in the surrounding area. Researchers concluded that the birds were on the brink of extinction. Later, remnant populations of Trumpeters were also found in western Canada and in parts of Alaska. In the 1930s and 1940s restoration efforts began, using eggs from the Red Rock Lakes.

In 1968, 3700 Trumpeter Swans were counted in North America. By 2015, there were 63,000. It’s a vital story—how that restoration happened and is happening, the return of  the largest North American bird  and maybe the largest living waterfowl on earth (measuring up to four feet tall and weighing up  to 30 pounds, with a wingspan of up to eight feet)—involving thousands of people, learning and working and offering many forms of support. It’s a story of feasible hope. 

Locally, the re-introduction project was led by Dale Becker, a large, amiable man who has been the Tribal Wildlife Program Manager for CSKT since 1989. Dale grew up on a farm in Iowa, and like Harold Knapp, he spent as much time as he could outdoors hunting and fishing. He and his wife Marilyn moved to Montana in 1977, where he completed a B.S. and an M.S. in Wildlife Biology. He worked for various conservation agencies before being hired by CSKT. He was honored as the Wildlife Biologist of the Year by the Montana Chapter of The Wildlife Society in 2004, and he served as President of The Trumpeter Swan Society from 2005 to 2010.

Dale began planning with other tribal, state and federal wildlife managers to reintroduce Trumpeter Swans in 1996, triggered in part by money in the form of mitigation funds from Kerr Dam, a hydroelectric facility on the Flathead River a few miles below Flathead Lake. Ecological restoration often becomes more important to people as prosperity advances. People who live near to hunger will readily eat swan eggs or roasted swan.

Today, the big birds are a common sight on the Flathead Reservation, and the trendlines are good. The captive breeding program has been suspended because it appears that wild nesting will be enough. We can restore what has been lost if we are willing to study and obey nature’s ways, if we are willing to find allies and accept constant work, and if we are willing to learn from attempts that fail, re-envisioning the path forward.

When autumn came in 1996, those 19 swans relocated from Oregon that were released into the Pablo Reservoir flew away and did not return. So, back to the drawing board.

By 1999, Dale and partners on the project (including an old friend of mine, Bill Edelman, of the Lower Flathead Valley Community Foundation) had located better sources of cygnets. They established a relationship with the Trumpeter Swan Fund (TSF) in Jackson, Wyoming. This provided both a source of cygnets and access to a wealth of knowledge about captive breeding and introducing captive birds into the wild. With a source of the indispensable resource and more knowledge the project continued. Since 2002, 125 Trumpeter Swans have been hatched in captivity and released on Reservation waters. 

The first successful nest in the wild occurred in 2004 at Del Palmer’s place, a beautiful property lined with weeping willows, just west of the Ninepipe Reservoir. The successful pair continued nesting there for 13 years, until the death of the female. In 2018, according to Becker, 194 resident adults and sub-adults and 64 cygnets were counted here (and 329 in the rest of Montana).

Since the re-introduced swans had been raised in captivity, they never accompanied their parents on the southward migration, usually to Red Rock Lakes where warm springs keep two large, shallow lakes unfrozen through the winter. The lakes are in the wild Centennial Valley, protected since 1935 as a federal wildlife refuge.  The Flathead swans have lost migratory patterns that had existed for millennia.  Most of the birds now winter locally, a few miles southwest on the Flathead River between Dixon and Paradise.  Essentially, the swans have become year around residents even though the river doesn’t have an abundance of aquatic vegetation such as waterweed, pondweed, watermilfoil, and duck potato. Trumpeter Swans are heavy feeders, eating up to 20 pounds of plants a day. But despite sparse foods, the birds “seem to get by,” said Becker. “If the river ices up, they move up or downstream for a few days.”

When we attempt a restoration, many things have likely changed so what we create will not be identical to what existed in the past. We live with current realities such as that the migratory habits of today’s swans are different. Even more striking, the Pablo Reservoir, which is where the first reintroductions took place (and is today a favored location where many dozens of swans gather for the fall molt) is an artificial lake that didn’t exist when wild swans nested here without human intervention.

Pablo Dam was completed as a storage reservoir for irrigation in 1919.  The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) requested the establishment of Pablo National Wildlife Refuge, and in 1948 Congress passed legislation enabling the federal government to create a long-term lease for the Indian Trust land and to superimpose a national wildlife refuge on the irrigation project. The wetlands that exist today are to some extent the creations of large, coordinating institutions that barely existed in the early Twentieth Century.

Not long ago I spent the last two hours of a day on the shore of the reservoir. The site doesn’t have recreational facilities which means its an easy place to be alone. It’s permissible to hike down to the lake when nesting season is over. That evening I photographed Trumpeter Swans, Green-winged Teal, Caspian Terns, an Osprey, several Great Blue Herons, Ring-billed Gulls, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, some Killdeer, and one American White Pelican. Up to 18 varieties of shorebirds have been seen in a single day, according to Audubon. It isn’t wilderness, exactly, but wildness is abundant there, mainly because of people who wanted it to be there enough to learn and to work, and then to learn again.

For the Tribes, ecological restoration is inseparable from cultural and spiritual restoration, as, I think, it is for us all. This may be easier to see for a hunter/gatherer culture, but what is happening now is that the tribes have accepted modern technology and science but subject their uses to the advice and direction of tribal elders. Last fall at a Lake Honoring program at the University of Montana’s Biological Research Station on Flathead Lake, school children from area high schools experienced a series of science station led by staff of the University of Montana, MFWP, and CSKT. The opening session featured a talk to students by Tony Incashola,  Selish and Qlispe Culture Committee Director. Tony has been a leader in the work of restoring and preserving traditional culture. In 2017, Incashola was presented with the Montana Historical Society’s Board of Trustees Heritage Keeper Award for his “dedication to preserving, protecting, and perpetuating the culture, history, and language of the people of the Flathead Nation.”

 “Taking care of our environment is an important part of our way of life as Native people,” he said. “If we can learn to value the earth when we’re young, we’ll carry that throughout our life and hopefully pass it on to the next generation.” He stressed that there was no conflict between traditional values and science. “We respect the trees and appreciate all they do for us. The provide us with shade. They give places for birds to nest. We can burn wood to keep warm. But we can also learn more about how they do these things and what we can do to care for them.”

A true restoration won’t be an inflexible replica of some state of things that existed at some point in the past. It needs to be a living community of humans and other creatures interacting in complex ways with realities that exist right now. The result will be different in some ways from what was once here. It’s an act of creation.

If we do our work well, we find balances that include as many pieces of the bigger picture as possible. In finding those balances, we greatly increase our knowledge of how nature works. We tread sacred paths that open to us only as we move forward. “We learn by going,” Roethke said, “where we have to go.”

We become stewards, gardeners whose byword is “care.” Restoration is creation, engaging the past and the present to form visions of the future, informed by science but drawn onward by our hearts’ recognition of the swans themselves—aspects of Creation that give accessible form to an older and deeper spiritual knowing.