A proposal that some say could potentially open the door to hunting of trumpeter swans in the Mississippi flyway is stirring controversy.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are recommending changes to its annual framework that guides state hunting regulations for migratory birds.
The changes are aimed at giving a break to hunters who accidentally shoot a trumpeter swan while targeting the tundra swan, which is allowed in five states. Minnesota is not one of them.
Federal officials say that mistake is more likely to happen given the dramatic recovery of the trumpeter swan, which went from near extinction at the beginning of the 20th century to an estimated 66,000 birds in North America today.
"They are rapidly growing and expanding," said Brad Bortner, chief of migratory bird management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Currently, swan hunting isn't allowed in any of the states in the Mississippi flyway, which extends from Minnesota to Louisiana. But five states in other flyways, including North and South Dakota, do have tundra swan hunting seasons.
Trumpeter swans are larger than tundra swans, but the two look similar from a distance, Bortner said. Under current regulations, a hunter who mistakenly shoots a trumpeter swan while hunting for tundra swans is violating the law.
In a draft environmental assessment, the Fish and Wildlife Service analyzed five options, including leaving the current rules alone.
The agency's proposed alternative would allow a limited "take" of trumpeter swans, meaning tundra swan hunters would no longer be in violation of hunting regulations if they accidentally shoot a trumpeter swan.
Fish and Wildlife officials stress that the rule only applies to states that allow swan hunting. Any states that want to start a new hunting season would be required to show that more than 90 percent of the proposed hunting area's swans are tundra swans.
Officials say they haven't received any proposals from states in the Mississippi flyway to allow swan hunting, and don't anticipate states with large populations to trumpeter swans will want to open seasons.
But trumpeter swan advocates still worry that simply including the flyway in the proposal could lead to future hunting.
Carrol Henderson, non-game wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, led the state's trumpeter swan recovery effort.
In 1982, about 350 young trumpeter swans, or cygnets, were released in Minnesota. Since then, the statewide population has grown to as many as 20,000 birds, Henderson said.
"It's been just a remarkable success story," he said. "And the birds are pretty well scattered through the state. So people get to enjoy seeing the swans nesting and raising their cygnets throughout much of Minnesota."
Henderson worries that including the Mississippi flyway in the environmental assessment could leave open the possibility of a future hunting season in Minnesota.
"At no point anywhere have we even had hunters step forward and say, 'When can we start shooting these birds as game species?'" he said. "Even hunters don't perceive them as something they want to bring home in the bag. It's something to be enjoyed, like a bald eagle."
Henderson said the issue of hunters mistakenly shooting trumpeter swans could be better resolved by game wardens confiscating the swan but not issuing a citation.
John Pennoyer is one of dozens of people who have submitted comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service voicing concern. A hunter and a wildlife photographer, Pennoyer said he enjoys watching trumpeter swans near his Maple Grove home.
"Almost any lake, almost any wetland area you go to now, you can find a pair of trumpeter swans out there," he said. "It's just a thrill to see that."
The public has until Oct. 15 to comment on the draft assessment.