Courtesy Salish Kootenai Wildlife Department
Trumpeter swans on the Flathead Reservation

Rare Trumpeter Swan as Target Practice: Two Men Sentenced on Flathead Reservation

Jack McNeel

Two non-tribal members in Montana have been fined and barred from hunting or fishing statewide after they shot a rare trumpeter swan on the Flathead Reservation in January.

It’s the largest waterfowl species in the world, with males reaching over 30 pounds and females up to 25 pounds, and a wingspan of up to eight feet. But Leroy Charles and Timothy Brantner had another idea when they saw the majestic bird floating serenely on the Lower Flathead River, according to tribal police: target practice. With a high-powered rifle, no less.

The two were hauled into tribal court earlier this month for the incident, which came to light when the swan was found shot to death on January 21 on the Lower Flathead River. Tribal game wardens received a call that day, went to investigate and determined that the swan had been killed with a high-powered rifle. These birds mate for life, and the dead bird’s mate was still seen in the vicinity.

Working together, Tribal Conservation Officer Mike McElderry, of the Pend Oreille Tribe, and Montana Warden Ron Howell tracked down the violators after a press release seeking help generated a phone tip leading to the apprehension of the two men, McElderry said.

“They gave us the information we needed,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Everything checked out. They decided to do some target practice, saw the swan and shot it with a .06.”

It took a month from the time it happened until information was gathered and the two men, both non-tribal members, confessed. Charles appeared before tribal court in early April, charged with negligent discharging of a firearm, taking a species closed to hunting, and for hunting outside of season and bag limits. Pleading guilty, he was fined a total of $3,000—$500 for each count, plus another $1,500 for restitution—and received a five-year suspension on bird hunting, fishing and recreational privileges on tribal land, a ban that also extends across the entire state of Montana. In addition, Charles must meet with the Salish or Kootenai Culture Committees for further instruction within 60 days.

Brantner did not appear in court and was given a default judgment. He was cited for recreating on tribal land without a permit and for negligent discharge of a firearm. A fine of $100 was imposed on the first charge and $500 on the second, plus a one-year suspension to fish, hunt birds or recreate on tribal lands.

McElderry emphasized the degree and importance of cooperation that the investigation entailed between tribes and the Montana warden.

“It’s a joint thing here, and crucial,” McElderry said. “It’s also rare for state and tribal entities to work closely together, especially in fish and game matters.”

Trumpeter swans’ presence on the reservation is hard-won. Once common in this region prior to European settlement, by the late 1800s it appeared that no birds still nested here. Habitat change and over-hunting nearly caused their extinction, and at one time they were considered for endangered species status.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation, along with other state and federal agencies, began efforts in the mid-1990s to return these birds to the reservation. Some efforts were made with captive-raised swans and with relocated swans from other areas, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the first documented nesting occurred here. Since then the Tribal Wildlife Management Program has released 239 trumpeter swans.

Breeding pairs and numbers of young reared to fledging have continued to rise since that first nest in 2004. In 2013 the number of adult pairs of trumpeter swans reached its highest level, with 22 pairs located. This count now includes areas outside the reservation in northwestern Montana and one site in British Columbia, likely birds that originally came from the Flathead Reservation. Not all nests are successful, but 34 young birds are known to have fledged (reached the point of flying) last spring.

The arrest and sentencing of the two men underscored the importance of reintroducing trumpeters and how successful the effort has been, McElderry said. “Our people, Indian and non-Indian alike, are so appreciative that this guy was caught.”

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