Reestablishing Trumpeter Swans at Hydro Reservoirs in Michigan

Michigan originally was home to the majestic trumpeter swan. However, by the late nineteenth century, the swan population in the state was decreasing. A number of factors led to the demise of the native species, including unregulated hunting, demand for swan feathers to adorn ladies’ hats, the introduction of mute swans (an exotic species from Europe) for hat feathers, and loss of wetlands habitat. The last confirmed observation of the bird in Michigan occurred in 1885.

A century later, Consumers Energy is participating in efforts to reestablish a self-sustaining population of trumpeter swans in the state. The utility based in Jackson, Mich., owns and operates six hydro projects in the lower Au Sable River Valley, 75 miles north of Bay City, Mich.: 8-MW Alcona, 9-MW Cooke, 6.4-MW Five Channels, 9.9-MW Foote, 4.4-MW Loud, and 4.4-MW Mio. On the Manistee River, 25 miles west of Cadillac, Mich., Consumers owns and operates two other plants: 18.4-MW Hodenpyl and 21-MW Tippy.

Getting the idea for swan reestablishment

In the 1980s, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), in conjunction with Michigan State University’s Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, succeeded in releasing two-year-old trumpeter cygnets raised from Alaskan brood stock in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, particularly at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. However, no significant release efforts occurred in northern Lower Michigan.

Approximately ten years later, Consumers Energy was immersed in efforts to relicense its hydro projects along the Au Sable and Manistee rivers in northern Lower Michigan. As part of the relicense, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) required the utility to develop a wildlife management plan. One aspect of the development of the plan was to conduct habitat assessments. Through these assessments, Gary Dawson, senior wildlife biologist for Consumers Energy, identified several of the reservoirs associated with the hydro plants as having excellent potential for trumpeter reestablishment.

A century after trumpeter swans disappeared from the state of Michigan, the birds once again glide on Michigan lakes. Consumers Energy Company participated in a statewide program to reintroduce the species on hydroelectric reservoirs.

Trumpeters prefer shallow wetlands along lake shorelines and riverbanks with readily available food sources. Shorelines of Consumers Energy’s res ervoirs had an abundance of river horsetail, sago pondweed, water milfoil, arrowhead, and bulrush, which are among the trumpeters’ favorite foods. In addition, many of the potential habitats lay in undeveloped areas, which increased their desirability as release sites.

Consumers Energy sought advice from Joe Johnson (now retired from the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary) and Sylvia Taylor, a former coordinator of the MDNR’s non-game program. They both viewed the potential habitat at the reservoirs and agreed with Dawson.

Representatives of MDNR, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were enthusiastic about a trumpeter swan reestablishment program. In addition, participants in relicense-related public meetings supported the idea.

Although FERC did not require participation in the trumpeter release program, company officials at Consumers Energy chose to voluntarily support the state’s effort to reestablish the native species. The utility partnered with MDNR and the Kellogg Sanctuary to support the $25,000 cost to raise 26 trumpeter swans at the Kellogg Sanctuary and release them between 1997 and 2002. Other groups involved in the effort included the U.S. Forest Service, which monitored the program and participated in public education and joint habitat efforts; Au Sable Valley Audubon Society, which monitored the program and participated in public education; and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, who participated in trumpeter releases at the Tippy project.

Implementing the plan

Consumers Energy’s environmental and hydro employees participated in the capture of the swans at the Kellogg Sanctuary, and in the transport and release of the birds on the reservoirs. In June 1997, employees released two pairs of trumpeters on the reservoir of the Loud project. Success was almost immediate. One pair nested near the release site, and the following spring they produced five cygnets. The next year, the utility released ten birds on reservoirs along the Au Sable River. In 1999 and 2000, Consumers Energy’s employees released 12 trumpeters at the Tippy and Hodenpyl projects. In 2002, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians released six more trumpeter swans on the Tippy Reservoir. Prior to each release, staff at the Kellogg Sanctuary placed large neck bands on the swans for tracking purposes.

One challenge for the reintroduction program was competition from the established mute swan population. The two species are differentiated by the jet black bill of the trumpeter and orange black-knobbed bill of the mute. As the names imply, the trumpeter has a call like a sounding trumpet, while the mute swan’s vocalizations are largely limited to hissing. The two species compete for the same nesting areas and food supply. The mute swan is more aggressive in defending its territory than the trumpeter, and where the two species coexist, the trumpeter has difficulty gaining a foothold.

Another issue arose from the well-meaning but counterproductive effects of people “adopting” and feeding the swans. In one instance, Consumers Energy personnel accompanied MDNR staff to recapture one swan they had released on the Tippy Reservoir. The swan, on his own, had relocated to a small, nearby lake. People started feeding him, and he became overly aggressive, approaching people for food — especially youngsters. The program personnel returned the bird to the Kellogg Sanctuary, where its feathers were clipped to prevent flight. Consumers Energy staff and the Au Sable Valley Audubon Society produced a public education brochure to address the swan feeding issue.

Today, a large, self-sustaining trumpeter swan population is well established at Consumers Energy’s hydro reservoirs along the Au Sable River in northern Lower Michigan and at other small lakes in the vicinity. The area also attracts large wintering populations of trumpeters thanks to the abundant food sources and the operation of the hydro plants, which maintains open water. An MDNR statewide survey conducted in 2005 identified the lower Au Sable Valley as home to 135 trumpeters, compared to none in 1997. As a result, the National Audubon Society designated the river valley between Alcona Pond and Foote Dam Pond an “Important Bird Area.” The recognition is part of the society’s global effort to identify and conserve areas that are vital to birds. In 2007, the Michigan Audubon Society presented Consumers Energy with its Environmental Business Award to recognize the utility for its efforts to reestablish the swan population.

Along the Manistee River, reestablishment efforts have faced an uphill battle due to the large number of mute swans. However, some success has been confirmed at the Tippy project. For several years, a pair of trumpeters was observed on the upper part of Tippy Pond near a release site, but no nest had been confirmed. In 2007, though, a male trumpeter swan released by Consumers Energy in 1998 and a female released in 2002 by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, successfully raised two cygnets. The successful pairing of the older male and young female was a welcome surprise. Consumers Energy personnel continue periodic discussions with trumpeter swan experts about whether additional releases will likely improve the potential for successfully establishing a trumpeter population on the Manistee River.

— By Jim Bernier, senior natural resource manager, Consumers Energy Hydro Generation

Does your company have a good hydro public education program? This could deserve coverage in the “Another Benefit of Hydro” department.Hydro Review always welcomes your suggestions for magazine articles and departments you believe would be helpful to colleagues.

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