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At first the visitors thought it was a setup, a put-on of sorts for good show. Laine Stowell, the DNR's elk biologist, had taken the group into the Chequamegon National Forest and called out to an unseen animal. Off in the distance, one answered back right on cue. The skeptical visitors wondered if another biologist was off in the woods mimicking the animal call or had flicked on a tape recording...then a bull elk with four-foot antlers came into view about 100 yards away. It walked another 20 yards toward the slack-jawed audience of wildlife watchers and a film crew. The 850-pound animal threw its immense head back and echoed the biologist's call. Now the elk seemed a little uncertain. Who were these intruders in his territory?
The group witnessing this display last September was taking part in Bugle Days, sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Department of Natural Resources. Four couples had submitted winning bids at fund-raising auctions to take a guided trip to the Northwoods back country where elk were released just eight years ago.
Four of Wisconsin's 26 chapters of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation hold Bugle Days raffles/auctions each year. The winners get these guided trips to hear and hopefully see elk in the Clam Lake area where Ashland, Bayfield and Sawyer counties meet.
Dick Pfister, long-time elk hunter from Hayward, won the trip for himself and Terry Dale. "She'd never heard an elk bugle and I wanted her to have the experience. There's nothing more exciting than having a big ol' bull talking at you," said Pfister. "She found the whole thing thrilling, especially when we saw and heard a second bull."
Male elk bugle for many purposes. The low whistling sound that builds and culminates in a high-pitched, throaty whistle or grunt carries a long way. The sound tells other bulls within earshot that the bugling bull lays claim to a territory and a harem.
When the elk herd was reestablished in Wisconsin in 1995, there were only four to five mature bulls and 18 mature cows in the herd of 25. The bulls kept harems of up to 12 cows. They moved very little and consequently there was very little bugling. Now that the herd has grown, a dozen different bulls have set up harems of three to five cows and several "satellite" bulls are pressuring the herd bulls. Consequently, the bulls move their harems more often, sometimes up to a few miles away.
Males start to bugle in early September and end in late October. Bugling keeps the harem in touch. More importantly, the calls bring the cows into estrus earlier and together. Cows that are bred in an early, shorter rutting season enjoy some distinct advantages. They have more time to forage before the winter snows and may grow healthier calves. Elk calves that are born earlier than deer fawns and closer together in age will be back with their herds before black bears start feeding on fawns in the spring. You may recall concerns about black bear preying on elk calves in 2000. That has not happened more recently.
Wisconsin's 100 elk inhabit about 288 square miles of range southwest of Clam Lake. They can be hard to find, but Stowell has an edge. The biologist and his assistants put radio collars on 46 of the animals to study their movements, feeding, mating, calf rearing, health and other activities. Tracking elk movements and mapping their spread tells a story of how the herd is growing.
During winter, when the elk herd can be more easily trapped, young bulls and all the cows are collared for research. Adult bulls tend to stay in bachelor herds separate from the cows and calves. The bulls are bigger, generally more aggressive and they eat a lot of food, Stowell notes. The calves and cows tend to stay farther away from the bulls where they can feed and fend for themselves if winter food supplies dwindle in an area. The radio collars send signals that can be detected up to three to five miles away on the adult collars; two to four miles on the smaller calf collars. Batteries last two to three years, so researchers have time to follow the herd and note their activities.
The Wisconsin herd population stalled somewhat during the 1990s due to a small number of mature bulls. The big bulls dispersed about 15-20 miles away from the main body of cows. In the early years of elk recovery in Wisconsin only immature bulls were present to breed the cows. Hence, the pregnancy rates remained low for several years. Now the herd is more balanced, but most reproduction still comes from the original 18 mature cows, and they are getting old. Several are 12 years or older and biologists wonder just how long these cows can continue calving.
Fortunately, there is plenty of prime elk habitat in the area and U.S. Forest Service practices ensure there will be plenty of food for the herd. The Clam Lake area of the Chequamegon National Forest is actively managed for timber harvest. There are plenty of young two- to 10-year-old aspen stands that the elk will forage during summer and winter. If present forest management is sustained, the only limiting factor for continued growth in the elk herd is time, Stowell says.
Using directional antennaes on his truck, Stowell tunes into a radio collar on a younger bull that is within a few miles. It's a great fall morning with a touch of frost. Yellow, gold and red leaves hang heavy on the trees as the group quietly gets out of vehicles.
Walking a short distance, he takes a long dark tube resembling a radiator pipe from an old Chevy, holds it to his mouth, and gives a long blow. If the elk are in the mood and don't detect people, they may answer back during the fall rut. After his first call, Stowell gets a response, but never sees the animal in the thick foliage.
"At our second spot we got a response and had a six-by-six bull walk to us," the biologist said (six tines on each side of the elk's antlers). "Needless to say when the two skeptics saw the bull, their eyes kind of glazed over," Stowell recalls.
The big bull milled around on the trail for a few minutes before wandering back into the trees. Radio collars told an unseen story. Nearby was a harem of six cows and the herd bull was about a half-mile to the north.
"In fact, that was the bull I was calling to," Stowell said. "I knew the cows were very close and to our west. The 6-by-6 bull approached us from the south. He probably thought the interloper to the north was moving in on his cows."
Talking to the elk is just part of the Bugle Days experience. The program includes an in-depth elk biology talk by Stowell, and evening dinner and campfire at the Whiskey Jack Camp, a private Northwoods hunting lodge whose members were founding supporters of reintroducing elk to Wisconsin.
Elk roamed throughout the state prior to European immigrant settlement. The last native elk was killed in 1886. In the early 1900s, efforts to re-establish elk in Vilas County failed mainly because of poaching.
Organizing work by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) working with Wisconsin sporting groups, the U.S. Forest Service, the Ojibwe Nation, the Wisconsin and Michigan Departments of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin wildlife researchers and some enthusiastic Wisconsin legislators created both support and funding to try bringing elk back to Wisconsin in the early 1990s. Following wildlife management plans and public hearings, parcels of the Chequamegon Forest near Clam Lake were selected as the first release site.
Twenty-five elk from Michigan's Lower Peninsula were released in the forest. Today, the herd is growing steadily with the hope that the population will expand to 1,400 animals.
"The highlight of the Bugle Days trip for me was when Laine took us to that original site where elk were released, said Brenda Kruncos of Wausau. "He gave a history of elk in Wisconsin, and explained the radio-collar work."
Kruncos won space on the trip for herself and her son, Brian. Though she doesn't hunt, Kruncos enjoys the outdoors and took part in the Bugle Days raffle because the proceeds go directly to the Wisconsin elk recovery project.
"We are not taking money from the western elk programs or from other DNR wildlife projects," Kruncos said. She has been involved with RMEF in Wausau since 1991 and currently chairs both her local Big Bull Falls Chapter and the statewide RMEF chapter.
Following their field tour, the group travelled over gravel and sand roads to reach the remote Whiskey Jack Camp. In the tradition of many great hunting camps sprinkled throughout the state, Whiskey Jack Camp was built 44 years ago by a group of 15 hunting buddies and their families as a communal retreat and a quiet place to enjoy card games, the hunting seasons and each others' company. The hand-crafted lodge nestled in the Chequamegon forestlands can sleep up to 28 and has entertained hundreds over the years.
The congenial owners and their heirs have a special relationship with state wildlife programs. The notion to bring elk back to Wisconsin was widely discussed and developed around the Whiskey Jack tables. In fact, the camp is still home base for the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point black bear den research.
Here, formal dinner "wear" is jeans and a flannel shirt. If your shirttail sticks out, it's considered a "tux." Camp cooks equally relish the hospitality of preparing and sharing gourmet meals with their guests. After a feast from the camp galley, the Bugle Days bunch and their hosts retired to the campfire outside. The group was treated to an insider's look into how elk once again became part of the Wisconsin wildlife mix.
"By lucky coincidence, the elk project was put in our back yard," said Bernie Lemon, founding member of Whiskey Jacks, elk hunter and RMEF North East Regional Chair. He heaped praise on a number of people, but singled out three for special mention – the late Professor Ray Anderson of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Martin Hansen of Clam Lake and former Governor Tommy G. Thompson.
Dr. Anderson conducted studies that were later approved by the Department of Natural Resources recommending where to consider placing elk. Hansen helped convince Clam Lake residents that elk would not harm local deer populations and would increase tourism to the area. Gov. Thompson got the initial funding that was then built upon by RMEF.
"It was through their collective efforts that we now have these magnificent animals roaming our woodlands," Lemon said, "and it all happened because the citizens of this state wanted it and were willing to financially support it." They all wanted to hear the bugling call return to the Northwoods.
James C. Bishop, Jr. is DNR public affairs manager for the Northern Region based in Spooner.