The fog and snow start lifting just after 1 a.m., blown to tatters by a light breeze from the north drifting down the Continental Divide. As the last shards of the December storm disappear, they leave nothing behind but blackness. No moon. Not a single star. The kind of dark that hangs on around the edges of wild places, middle-of-nowhere spots like this one on the outer edge of greater Yellowstone.
U.S. Highway 20 in the distance now seems abandoned, its silence broken only by the rare tractor-trailer running south for Idaho Falls, wheels fizzling against the snow-packed road, beams from the headlights pouring between the 3-foot drifts.
Then, something else: the whine of a small, unmuffled engine out on the river, revving up, then idling. About a quarter of a mile away, a powerful beam of light sweeps to the left and to the right with enough lumens to bring daylight to a nighttime car lot. It flashes across rock-strewn rapids, bounces back and forth between huddles of lodgepole pine growing near the banks.
Five minutes pass, and at last the source of the commotion rounds the bend: a 12-foot-long airboat wheeled down the rock-strewn bed of the river. A dark figure, dressed in a layer of neoprene topped by an Alaskan survival suit, steers it. Strapped to his head is a hard hat to which he's bolted a floodlight, powered by hookup cords connected to a small generator. In the stern is an ultralight aircraft engine, which sounds like a 60-horsepower Shop-Vac. It's a scene straight out of "Mad Max."
"That's Kent," says an Idaho Department of Fish and Game worker who is waiting in calf-deep snow. The boat runs up against a shelf of ice, and Kent Clegg starts to hand over a series of heavy gunnysacks, an ungainly cargo.
"And these," she says, "are the trumpeters."
Trumpeter swans, North America's largest native waterfowl, typically float on 8-foot wingspans over the rivers and marshes of the northern Rockies like God's own airline. One look, Audubon promised, "and you will feel, as I have felt, happier and freer of care than I can describe." For their size and poise and strength, these birds seem well matched to this rugged landscape. Somehow it just feels right to glance eastward in the spring and see half a dozen pairs of bright white wings pushing northward against the still-frozen backdrop of the Tetons.
But this isn't the spring. It's early winter, and these birds aren't going anywhere. Having flown south out of Canada in late autumn, they descended upon the western edge of the greater Yellowstone region in Idaho, 15 miles from the national park. During the summer, perhaps 250 stay in the Henry's Fork area, but in the fall that population swells to between 2,000 and 3,000 birds who could eat the place bare if unchecked.
And this is where Clegg, the man in the airboat, comes into the picture. He's out to change this pattern.
Voracious appetites Under a bank of fluorescent lights in a maintenance garage at Harriman State Park a mile away, Lauri Hanauska-Brown, a biologist with Idaho's Department of Fish and Game, sits on a stool in a pair of brown Carhartt overalls, flanked by two bleary-eyed assistants. Around them are workbenches and pegboards covered with small hand tools. A wood stove crackles with burning chunks of pine.
In Hanauska-Brown's lap is a trumpeter, lying passively on its back. Ten more huddle in wooden crates stacked on either side of the concrete bay. The creature's 3-foot-long neck hangs limp as pondweed, drooping nearly to the floor. She clamps a metal identification band around its leg and a collar over its neck. The smell of metal, grease and smoke is cut by the moist acidic odor of wet feathers, urine and feces.
"There are just too many swans here," says Hanauska-Brown, who is in her early 30s and heads this program funded primarily through Idaho's Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In addition to the risk of disease associated with such population densities, swans are voracious eaters, consuming 12 pounds each day of pondweed, water parsley, sedges and rushes — roughly half their weight. It's a diet and an appetite that cause problems for other members of the wildlife community, including what is considered by many to be one of the finest trout fisheries in the country. As vegetation disappears, so goes the weedy cover — and the insect habitat — that trout subsist on.
"If we don't go in there and move those swans, we'd probably be looking at some major losses, strictly through the birds starving to death," said Daryl Meints, regional wildlife manager for Fish and Game.
The goal here is simple: With the biologist's help, Clegg will move some of these birds 150 miles south to Bear River in southeast Idaho. The new location, explains Hanauska-Brown, "is to establish in their minds a new migration pattern. We want to give them new homes — ones they'll keep returning to in years to come," and from tracking information and anecdotal sightings, the program seems to work.
For the most part, after all, these are robust birds. Cultures around the world have fashioned a stew pot of myth and legend casting swans of all stripes as strong fliers. In Sweden, they tell a story about two flocks locked in a furious contest to be the first to arrive on a distant summer range, and the slower birds, too proud to land beside the winners, keep on flying, so far that they eventually end up frozen in the skies of the polar north.
"When those fluttering feathers catch the rays of the sun just right," the storytellers say, "earthbound humans look up and point and call them the northern lights."
But the trumpeter swans' beauty, these northern lights, has been their curse. By the 1930s the birds were on the brink of extinction. Only 69 of them were left in the Rockies, down from a historic population of many thousands. Some were harvested by subsistence hunters, others captured and sold to zoos. But most destructive was the slaughter engineered by plume hunters.
Throughout the 19th century, thousands of swan skins were sold through the fur trade, the feathers used for everything from powder puffs to hat decorations — from Park Avenue to the Champs-Elysées. The few birds that escaped the gunners carried on their old life and rhythms, every autumn fleeing the Canadian winters, heading south, against all odds.
A survey, conducted in 1990, counted 15,630 birds. Today some biologists estimate the entire population to be roughly 25,000. They are not listed as endangered.
Undaunted spirit "In this work, common sense isn't much of a virtue," says Clegg.
He has a thoughtful, laconic manner. Well over 6 feet tall, with hands you'd want on your side in a brawl, he's a 40-year-old farmer with a wife and four young daughters, raising barley and hay and some 30 cows in Grace, Idaho, about 150 miles south of here. At times he can seem shy and boyish, too focused on doing things to burn daylight simply talking. But when he's perched on his airboat, he looks like a contestant from "Monster Garage."
These are tough days for conservation in the Rockies. Critical winter habitat for animals — from trumpeter swans to elk — is being lost at a rapid pace. In Colorado alone, according to a 2004 study conducted by Colorado College, subdivisions are sprouting at the rate of 10 acres every hour. A push to develop energy in places like Montana's Front Range may further compromise this wild region.
While undaunted, Clegg concedes that he's shifted more of his attention to his family — in particular his daughters — to better handle disappointments that come with his conservation work. When recounting favorite moments in the field — watching a pair of whooping cranes soaring on morning thermals in the heart of Yellowstone, for example — he tends to end the stories with a common refrain: a hope that someday his kids will be able to show their kids such things too.
Though lacking any sort of formal wildlife credentials (he has a business degree), Clegg is a skilled problem solver, one of those creative fix-it guys who has kept state and federal agencies calling on him for decades.
"If Kent would not have agreed to do this," says Hanauska-Brown, "I would have been hard-pressed to find someone else who could manage it."
Clegg first started working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho when he was 17. There he showed himself to be a savant not only at repairing engines, but at helping managers develop and test techniques for capturing sandhill cranes. "Growing up on a farm," he explains, "with wild places not far away, I loved seeing everything fitting into its niche, everything working."
Those early experiences — and later stints working with whooping cranes in Yellowstone and white-fronted geese in the Arctic — made Clegg the top choice for tackling the puzzle of how best to relocate the swans of Henry's Fork.
More than a century ago, the swans' lives were simple. As the summer turned to fall, they would leave Canada, some flying south, crossing the lava flows and prairies of eastern Idaho, following Utah's Uinta and Wasatch ranges and settling for winter in pockets of open water scattered amid the brown hills of Arizona and central New Mexico.
Yet by the 1930s, virtually all the birds that followed this route were dead due not only to hunting but also to a feeding program that was started in 1935 at nearby Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana. This stretch of land near Yellowstone, where thermal springs kept small watercourses free of ice, was a logical stopping point for the birds. The program saved the swans, but it erased memories of their former migrations, and when the feeding program was discontinued in 1992 to promote dispersal, many of the birds found more abundant food in this six-mile stretch of Henry's Fork.
Creating different migration patterns for the trumpeters is not a new scheme. The idea was hatched in the late 1980s, but it took years of trial and error by Clegg and the biologists to make it work.
When researchers first started moving trumpeters to various lakes and rivers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the birds would often beat the research truck back to where they were captured. Then, under the assumption that immature birds would have no entrenched memory of home waters, the cygnets were targeted.
But first they had to be captured. Clegg tried netting traps baited with grain, but with plenty of natural food around, the birds were uninterested. Then the researchers tried net gunning, in which weighted nets were fired from a small cannon, but at 20 belowzero the loose ends froze fast to the ground, causing the net to rip to shreds the second the cannon was fired.
Then Clegg and the crew shifted strategies, moving from the banks to the river. For a while he tried Jon boats powered by small Go-Devil motors, but the engine drove the boat more slowly than a swan could swim. That left him in a string of Lucy and Ethel-like moments, cruising around for 15 minutes after a single bird, never quite catching it. At the same time, the profusion of rocks on this shallow river tore holes in the hull, and it was out in a Jon boat that Clegg had one of his more memorable calamities — falling headfirst into the river, smashing his light and experiencing a near-fatal bout with hypothermia.
Three ruined boats later, Clegg struck on the idea of an airboat. He found an old hull at the local junkyard and brought it back to his shop, cut it into pieces and reassembled them into an appropriate size, then molded a craft out of Kevlar.
The real secret of Clegg's success, however, is his tenacity and endurance. Truly terrible weather — snow and fog — are dream conditions for those in the business of catching swans — that and starless, moonless nights. If the swans can see the horizon line, they know which way to fly and will.
And there is Clegg's technique: wielding the spotlight beam on his head with a Ray Charles bob and fade, not just dazing young swans but somehow actually herding them toward places where he can better reach them.
Trumpeter swans are not inclined to suffer humans gladly. They honk and flush at the first sign of intruders, but unlike geese, once they're captured — at least as long as their wings and feet are restrained — they go limp. Whether they're giving up or just playing possum, it's hard to say.
Wrapping up The helmet light finally goes out around 2 in the morning. Despite running out of gas in the middle of the river, Clegg has managed to catch 22 swans, four more than he needed to meet the season's target goal of 100. The fieldwork portion of Hanauska-Brown's three-year project is officially at an end. She looks relieved, standing here in her overalls covered in swan droppings, with the smears of leeches she's picked out of the noses of several birds. Her hands and fingernails are stained from the dye used to mark the wings of southbound birds.
Since 9 p.m., the birds bound for the Bear River have been weighed and measured, banded and radio-collared, then suffered the further indignity of having a single wing dyed Day-Glo pink to make identification easier. That coloring will eventually disappear as the birds molt their feathers.
Clegg spends what's left of the night sleeping on the floor of the maintenance building. Just after daylight he starts loading up the crates with some of the birds, drives them back to the river and sets them free on Henry's Fork. Once out of the crates, the swans waste no time waddling en masse back into the icy water, honking and clucking at one another. Clegg watches them sink their long necks under the water for something to eat, leaving a cluster of snow-white butts bobbing in the river, and he heads back to the garage to load up the birds bound for the Bear River.
It's a three-hour drive, and Clegg is home before dark. The next day he's up in the cold clouds in his ultralight, following the radio signals given off by the birds' collars, making sure they're settling OK into their new surroundings. Some will get wanderlust and disperse even farther afield.
Afterword: On Dec. 23, a trumpeter swan identified as 8Y3 was spotted at Hansen Dam in the San Fernando Valley. Clegg had caught the bird on Nov. 14 at Harriman State Park and released it the next day on the Bear River. Thirty-nine days later, 8Y3 had flown nearly 600 miles southwest of its onetime winter home in west Yellowstone.
Gary Ferguson is the author of "Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone" and coauthor of the forthcoming "Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone."