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Mountain-Prairie Region


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Surveys Show Once Imperiled Trumpeter Swan Populations Growing in the High Plains of Nebraska and South Dakota

Public Invited to View Swans at Several Local National Wildlife Refuges

For Immediate Release

December 11, 2015

Trumpeter Swans Credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS
Trumpeter Swans Credit: Tom Koerner/USFWS

MARTIN, South DakotaA recent aerial survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) over a portion of the Nebraska Sandhills and southwest South Dakota indicates that populations of trumpeter swans, a species that nearly disappeared from the lower 48, continue to grow.

Trumpeter swans are North America’s largest native waterfowl, with a wing span stretching six to eight feet and a weight of up to 25 pounds. Despite their size, they are elegant birds with graceful necks, snowy white plumage, black bills, and black legs and feet. 

This year’s survey counted 483 trumpeter swans in the High Plains Flock. The number of breeding pairs and offspring remained steady since the last survey, and the average annual growth rate of this flock shows a positive growth trend of 5.1% since 1990. This regional survey is part of a larger North American census that takes place every five years to determine the total number of adult and young-of-the-year trumpeter swans across the North American continent. 

Abundant and widespread across most of North America prior to the 19th century, the trumpeter swan was nearly extirpated in the contiguous U.S. due to market-hunting.  Swan feathers were used to decorate fashionable hats, their skins were used by women as powder puffs, and the birds’ flight feathers were sold as writing quills. The gradual loss of nesting, feeding, and wintering habitats to human land use, especially in the United States, further threatened the species.

However, aggressive conservation efforts across the species’ range help populations recover by the early 2000s.

The National Wildlife Refuge System played an important role in these recovery efforts. From 1960 to 1962, the Service relocated 57 trumpeter swan cygnets from Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Montana to Lacreek NWR, in South Dakota.  These cygnets were captive reared in pens at Lacreek NWR and then released as three-year olds.  Trumpeter swans are extremely sensitive to many human activities and development in or near their habitats, so the isolated Sandhills lakes and wetlands in the area proved ideal for the establishment of nesting territories. Soon, the swans pioneered into other parts of South Dakota and eventually into Nebraska, where they began nesting at Valentine NWR.  

By the 1970s, the Lacreek NWR flock had increased to 200 birds with successful breeding in northeastern Wyoming, western South Dakota, and the Nebraska Sandhills. Today, the majority of swans in the area nest within 75 miles of Lacreek NWR, and many of them return to the refuge each fall to feed on wetland food resources.

The months of November and December are the best times for the public to observe large numbers of swans at Lacreek NWR, as they feed on submerged tubers of arrowhead and other wetland vegetation that grow through the summer months. The auto tour loop located immediately south of refuge headquarters provides the best opportunity to view trumpeter swans.  A pair of binoculars or a scope is recommended for detailed observation of these remarkable birds, but they can also be seen with the naked eye. 

Trumpeter swans can also be observed at two other national wildlife refuges in the Nebraska Sandhills.  At Valentine NWR, swans can be observed between ice-out in the spring and freeze-up in the fall. During the summer, there are usually three to four pairs of swans nesting on the refuge, and family groups can usually be seen during late summer and early fall. Crescent Lake NWR, located south of Ellsworth, NE generally has swans arriving in the spring that can be observed on Island and Gimlet Lakes. During fall migration, swans can often be viewed on Goose Lake, while the North Platte River in Garden County is a good place to look for wintering swans. .

Trumpeter swan photos are available here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmtnprairie/albums/72157659882083253.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service.

For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/. Connect with our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/USFWSMountainPrairie, follow our tweets at http://twitter.com/USFWSMtnPrairie, watch our YouTube Channel at http://www.youtube.com/usfws and download photos from our Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmtnprairie/.

– FWS –

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Office of External Affairs

Mountain-Prairie Region

134 Union Blvd

Lakewood, CO 80228


303-236-3815 FAX



Brian DeVries
Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge Manager

Ryan Moehring

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The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with Others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American People.
Last modified: December 16, 2015
All Images Credit to and Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Unless Specified Otherwise.
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