Utah bans hunting of trumpeter swans, North America’s largest bird

In a major change to Utah swan hunting, state wildlife officials are proposing to ban the taking of trumpeter swans, a rare cousin of large-bodied tundra swans. Tundra swans would be legally shot during the 73-day fall swan hunting season in Utah.

The reason for the move is the unacceptably high number of migratory trumpeters killed by Utah hunters each year, leading to the early termination of swan hunting in each of the last four.

“We will continue to evaluate the structure of the swan season, but our current recommendation should discourage trumpeter harvesting, which in turn should result in the season remaining open for its entirety,” said Heather Talley, upland game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

DWR is soliciting online public comments on the proposal

Utah has for years allowed the trapping of rare trumpeter swans, considered North America’s largest bird because they can easily be confused with the much more common but smaller tundra swan. Utah expanded its annual total of swan permits from 2,000 to 2,750 in 2019, when few trumpeters were killed each year and never enough to end swan hunting early, according to Heather Talley, DWR’s highland game coordinator.

Utah is just one of nine states that allow swan hunting. But in these nine cases, the US Fish and Wildlife Service sets strict quotas for trumpeters who are still struggling to restore migratory populations, nearly a century after hunters nearly eradicated them.

For Utah, that quota used to be 10, but was increased to 20 in 2019 in response to growing trumpeter crowds. Also that year, the area open to swan hunting was expanded by 10,000 acres.

“Prior to 2019, we only had 20 harvested trumpeter swans in the state,” Talley said in an online presentation explaining the proposed rule. “And since 2019, 85 trumpeter swans have been reported in Utah’s harvest dates.”

In other words, in the last four years, hunters have killed four times more trumpeters in Utah than in all the years DWR has tracked.

Over the years, the success rates for Utah swan permit holders have averaged 41%. However, due to the early closures, success rates have dropped from 49% in 2020 to 32% in 2022, according to DWR data.

“The decrease in permits issued is largely due to the pre-season closures in 2021 and 2022 as there were no early lockdowns in those years that would have led to migrations prior to the closure. These early closures are hampering our swan hunters’ opportunities,” Talley said. “Over the past two years, more people have been harvesting trumpeter swans from public shooting ranges, which was an unintended consequence of raising the limit to provide more opportunities.”

Before the 2019 rule change, only one trumpeter was killed for every 800 tundra swans harvested, Talley said. But after the trumpeter quota was raised from 10 to 20, the numbers changed drastically. In recent years, hunters in Utah have killed a total of 85 trumpeters, while the trumpeter-to-tundra ratio skyrocketed to 1 to 41 — nearly a 40-fold increase from previous years, according to DWR harvest data.

Officials believe the increased trumpeter harvest reflects growing numbers of the large birds migrating through Utah, which is great news for swan conservation. But they also suspect hunters deliberately targeted the species, Talley said.

Last year, a swan hunter posted photos of himself on social media holding a deceased trumpeter and bragged about how he missed numerous opportunities to shoot a tundra swan in hopes of catching a trumpeter.

The now-deleted post sparked outrage from some hunters, as DWR was forced to end the swan hunt 24 days early after once again hitting the 20-bird quota.

Under the proposed rule, killing a trumpeter, intentionally or not, would be considered poaching and the bird would be confiscated.

“All swan hunters must continue to check in their swans within 72 hours of harvest, regardless of species, as previously mandated,” Talley said. “While there have been concerns about distinguishing between tundra and trumpeter swans, we already have several [waterfowl] Regulations mandating decoding between different species that may look similar.”

Federally set quotas are designed to protect trumpeters in the Greater Yellowstone region this summer. However, officials are still unsure where the trumpeter swans migrating through Utah are headed or where they are coming from.

Studies are currently being conducted to answer these questions by analyzing chemical isotopes in feathers and tracking the movements of trumpeter swans using GPS collars.

Justin Scaccy

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