The Beaver and the Swans
How de Havilland's famous bushplane has helped protect a species.
- By James Wynbrandt
- Air & Space magazine, July 2006
(Page 3 of 3)
No survey airplanes were flying near Fairbanks in mid-August. Crews had been grounded by smoke from forest fires. When rain had finally cleared the smoke from the state’s interior and crews were airborne again, I went surveying with Karen Bollinger in a Cessna C-206 near the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon Rivers, some 100 nautical miles west of Fairbanks. It was here that one of the first references to Alaska’s trumpeters was recorded: In 1870, a traveler noted the greased locks of the Tanana Indians “powdered with swan’s down, cut up finely…presenting a most remarkable and singular appearance.”
Even then trumpeters were scarce, which makes the resurgence witnessed from the air over the last three decades remarkable, according to the biologists in the Fish and Wildlife Service. The first aerial survey, conducted in 1975, counted 4,170 trumpeters. By the 2000 census, the total reached 17,155.
Brood size is the key to the swans’ future, so an accurate tabulation of the young is important. Their tendency to huddle together makes the cygnets hard to count from 500 feet. Over one such brood, Bollinger pulled the power, extended flaps, and made a dive-bombing turn for a closer look. The swans seemed not to notice the airplane. Sometimes multiple passes are required. (Observers are judged largely on their ability to endure these gut-wrenching maneuvers without puking.) I was lucky; on our first pass I could clearly see four cygnets following their parents into the water.
By the end of August, N754 was operating out of Bettles, north of the Arctic Circle, along with a C-206 that carried bio-pilot Jack Hodges and observer Debbie Groves. The census was in an accelerated dash to the finish. Groves would soon begin to tabulate the data.
Once the database is complete, it will provide information for land use planning and policy decisions. Placement of power lines, establishing boundaries of wildlife refuges, issuing permits for mining operations—all have been influenced by the results of previous surveys.
This year’s final count was higher than expected: 24,105. But for all the concern about the trumpeters’ future, it’s the census and the Alaska region’s unique aircraft and operations that seem most endangered. At $229,000, the survey’s cost about equalled the region’s 25 annual counts of other wildlife combined. The Fish and Wildlife Service tracks other migratory birds as well as sea otters, moose, and bears. “I think it’s really questionable whether it will ever be done again,” said Russ Oates, a biologist and Fish and Wildlife manager in Alaska. “There’s been a lot of skepticism about putting this much money into a species that has obviously recovered from its all-time lows.”
Oates believes that monitoring the swan populations is still necessary. “We don’t want this species to decline again,” he said, adding that 24,000 Alaskan trumpeters plus the few thousand elsewhere are relatively small numbers for the worldwide population of any animal.
“I can tell you I’ll be here in 2010, and I’ll be putting in a proposal,” Oates said a moment later. Like the trumpeter swans, the census takers know a thing or two about fighting for survival.