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State's trumpeter swan efforts span 25 years

A trumpeter swan found a perfect nesting spot on a pond east of New Richmond along County Road K.

Twenty-five years after efforts began to restore trumpeter swans to Wisconsin's landscape, state wildlife officials are celebrating a record number of nesting pairs as annual monitoring surveys of the birds begin.

"The good news is great news," says Sumner Matteson, the Department of Natural Resources biologist who has led the program since it started in 1987. "We had 197 nesting pairs in 2011 -- the highest number we've had to date. That's about 10 times the recovery goal we set in the 1980s, and it's extremely gratifying and a reflection of the partnerships that made it possible. We hope that this field season we'll set another new record."

DNR, with help from partners and volunteers, conducts several surveys to keep tabs on the swans, including aerial surveys to identify nests and confirm the hatching of cygnets. Those aerial surveys will begin shortly, followed by surveys done by biologists to check nests to see if the eggs are viable, and fall surveys in which biologists and volunteers round up cygnets and put numbered bands on their necks to help keep track of them in coming years.

After the 2012 field season ends, DNR will continue to monitor the birds but not every year.

"We've been monitoring the flock every year statewide since 1989," Matteson said. "We've come to a fork in the road where we no longer need to monitor annually so the next survey will be five years from now."

Market hunting and demand for the feathers of trumpeter swans brought these birds, one of North America's largest, to near-extinction in Wisconsin and other upper Midwest states by the 1880s. Wisconsin put the species on the state's endangered species list in the 1980s, which made it illegal to kill, transport, possess, process or sell them, and launched a recovery effort that collected eggs from the wilds of Alaska, hatched them at the Milwaukee Zoo, and reared the young in the wild using decoys, and in captivity, before releasing them.

Scores of organizations, businesses and private individuals worked to carry out the recovery effort with state wildlife managers, technicians, research scientists, University of Wisconsin-Madison wildlife ecologists, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff.

Trumpeter swans reached the recovery goal early -- more than doubling the 20 breeding pairs hoped for by 2000 --and Wisconsin removed it from the endangered species list in 2009. Trumpeter swan nests are now found in 24 Wisconsin counties.

More information and a video update on the trumpeter swan recovery are found on  DNR's year-long web series, Celebrating 40 years of protecting Wisconsin's natural heritage. Go to and search for ER 40.