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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1999

Is there room for elk in Wisconsin? © 
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

A clarion bugle across Badgerland

There's a growing call to bring back elk to several areas of Wisconsin.

James C. Bishop, Jr.

Is there room for elk in Wisconsin?

© Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

Reintroducing a species | Elk on the move

In May 1998, on a quiet, wooded hillside south of Clam Lake, elk cow number 26 gave birth to a calf, one of the first-born from the first herd of elk to roam Wisconsin in 109 years. The young calf was fawned over by its mother and watched equally closely by elk researchers and a host of supporters who hope to re-establish this extirpated species.

The last native elk in Wisconsin was shot in 1866, ending the chance for locals to see any of the estimated 10 million elk that once roamed the United States from Mexico to Maine. Unregulated subsistence and market hunting dropped the elk population to 90,000 animals nationwide by the early 1900s. Conservation-minded hunters and other citizens became concerned and started efforts to protect elk and reintroduce them to their native range.

In Wisconsin, the first attempt occurred in 1913. The Wisconsin Conservation Commission brought in a traincar load of elk that had been starving in Yellowstone National Park. Only two elk from that first load survived and a second carload of 32 elk was shipped in 1917. These animals were placed in a 300-acre enclosure at Trout Lake some 10 miles north of Minocqua. Pneumonia killed half the group that first winter. According to accounts in a 1988 centennial edition of the Lakeland Times newspaper, the herd barely held on. By December 1928, only 19 bulls, 17 cows and nine calves survived. Sustaining a herd that was not growing appreciably was deemed too costly by the Conservation Commission, and in 1931 some of the animals were sent to parks and zoos or given to private individuals. The remaining 15 or so elk were unpenned and set free. They soon drifted down to the Arbor Vitae and Woodruff area.

Newspaper reports note the elk became a bit of a nuisance – eating haystacks and garden produce, running through barbed wire fences and, during the rut, challenging humans. Art Oehmcke, a retired DNR District director was then supervisor at Woodruff. He remembered the phone call he received from a distressed woman that a bull elk had her husband cornered and corralled in a barn. Oehmcke went to the farm with a shotgun, fired two shots in the air and the bull ran off.

One by one, the released elk were shot as nuisances or mistaken for deer. One of the last, a 600-pound bull, was shot south of the village of Sayner during the 1943 deer season. When contacted, Oehmcke sent two men out with a Caterpillar tractor to drag the animal out of the woods. They loaded it on a truck, took it to the Woodruff Ranger Station and hung it in a tree.

"In those days we'd sell poached deer by the pound to anyone who wanted the meat." Oehmcke said, "When two Illinois men saw the elk, they wanted to buy it and we sold it to them." With ropes and pulleys the men managed to lay the elk on their car roof, which promptly collapsed! Oehmcke later received a news clip from the Harvard, Illinois newspaper in which the two Illinois men claimed they were charged by a big bull elk in northern Wisconsin and had to shoot it to save their lives.

Reintroducing a species

Little was said about bringing back elk again until 1989 when directed the Department of Natural Resources to study the prospect of reintroducing moose, caribou and elk into Wisconsin. An assessment a year later concluded that of the three species, elk had the greatest potential to survive here. DNR staff were directed to find a suitable area to test elk reintroduction.

The forested expanses and rolling hills of the Bayfield peninsula seemed like an ideal spot. Lake Superior winds moderated the year-round temperatures and the area was sparsely populated. In 1991, DNR wildlife biologists designed and published a management plan, but some area farmers, snowmobilers and deer hunters took issue with the proposed project. Lacking public support, the Natural Resources Board chose not to pursue placing a herd in the Bayfield area.

Project proponents persisted and formed a Wisconsin Elk Study Committee (WESCO) of wildlife biologists, area citizens and elk fans. They explored alternative sites and determined that a relatively remote area on the Chequamegon National Forest near Clam Lake offered both suitable habitat for elk and less conflict with neighboring farms.

Map © Moonlit Ink

Centered in the chosen 315 square miles of prime elk range is a U.S. Navy communications system called Project ELF (Extremely Low Frequency). The Navy cleared an X-shaped swath 100 feet wide and 37 miles long to array and deploy two huge underground antennas that are used to send signals to submerged U.S. submarines worldwide. The cleared area traverses uplands, lowlands, and a wide variety of cover types. The cleared region would provide closely clipped grasses and other ground forage for grazing elk.

Surrounding the primary range is 404 square miles of additional hardwoods and conifer swamps. About 85 percent of this forested rangeland is publicly-owned. The vast property contains hundreds of wildlife openings and aspen clearcuts that are ideally suited to elk.

Once the reintroduction area was selected, elk proponents went to work. With elk information in hand, Martin Hanson of Mellen and other WESCO members made 32 presentations to local civic, conservation, government and industrial groups. They got favorable responses from 25 groups, neutral reactions from four groups and negative responses from only three groups. Strong political support was also garnered from the Town of Clam Lake and the Ashland County boards.

"We knew from the start that we'd need strong support locally," Hanson said, "and that a county vote was the turning point in getting the project going". Given a suitable site for elk and public backing, WESCO submitted a proposal to conduct a four-year study, which was approved by the Department of Natural Resources in June 1994.

Next step? Find some elk! Disease transmission, herd health, shipping logistics, costs, and quarantine time were all considered. The study committee considered elk from South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Manitoba, Michigan, and a 6,000-acre elk ranch in Wisconsin. Eventually Michigan DNR Director Rollie Harmes offered Wisconsin DNR Secretary George Meyer 25 elk from their herd. This relatively nearby site had similar habitat to the Wisconsin site, was on the same latitude and the herd was disease-free.

Elk were trapped, penned and quarantined for 90 days. The herd was tested for six diseases, dusted for external parasites, treated for internal parasites and collared with battery and solar-powered transmitters. On May 3, 1995, a day after the quarantine ended, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson opened the trailer gate releasing the transported elk to a two-acre holding area that gave the elk two weeks to adjust to their new surroundings. Then the gates were opened and the elk moved out.

Researchers are tracking the herd's progress to determine if elk are compatible with existing resources – and people.

© Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Grazing elk. Researchers are tracking the herd's progress to determine if elk are compatible with existing resources – and people. © Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

For the last four years, researchers have tracked elk, studied their daily health and survival, kept records of herd reproduction and assessed if elk are compatible with surrounding resources and people. The study, underwritten by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), was designed and carried out by Dr. Ray Anderson, a retired UW-Stevens Point wildlife researcher. The money to move, release and track the herd included $100,000 from RMEF, $50,000 in state funds, $50,000 from the Navy and funds from the U.S. Forest Service, private donors and businesses. Private donors in Wisconsin were led by Bernie Lemon, a dedicated elk fan from New Berlin, who started the first RMEF state chapter here in 1987. Currently 19 RMEF chapters and almost 4,000 members across the state support the elk project.

"I'm just proud to be part of all this," Lemon said. "I look forward to the day when my grandchildren can view elk footprints in the sands of northern Wisconsin or see one of these magnificent animals grazing on a hillside."

For the first three years of the study, each elk was radio-tagged and monitored daily by antennas mounted on three vehicles. During the fourth year, adult elk were monitored every other day, but calves were checked daily.

Elk on the move

A day after their initial release, the elk formed small groups and moved away from the pen area. Some moved seven to nine miles that first day. One group headed north across Highway 77, while a number of the bulls and a few of the cows took off on solo adventures.

An adult cow, later dubbed "the Hurley Lady," traveled northeast to within a half-mile of the Michigan border. Along the way she gave birth to a calf which was not seen after she left the Iron Belt area. Months later the cow was recaptured and returned to the original release site where she has remained.

Three elk died early in the study from stresses of capture, transport and quarantine. Another was shot during the 1995 deer season.

The rest are doing fine and the herd has grown steadily. With 25 calves, the Wisconsin herd has at least 50 animals. Anderson said calf survival has been excellent with few losses to winter stress, though two elk calves were killed by bears.

The north has a large bear population and "we knew bears could prey on young elk much as they do on deer fawns," Anderson explained. The big difference between deer and elk, the researcher said, is that elk cows try to protect their young while deer flee. Flight allows deer to protect themselves so they can reproduce again. Elk are big enough to discourage most predators and elk calves are very mobile within three to five days. Elk can elude bears whereas deer fawns are vulnerable for about 12 days.

In studying elk calf survival, researchers captured and radio-collared 18 bear and two wolves. Elk calf survival is encouraging considering that predators annually take about 23 percent of the deer fawn crop in Wisconsin, Anderson noted.

The elk also survived two severe winters during 1995-1996 and 1996-1997. Elk pellet studies, browse surveys and urine analysis found the animals were eating well and remaining healthy despite 30 plus inches of snow and record low temperatures in the Clam Lake area. The long-legged elk plowed through deep snow and pawed through it to get to food. Winter elk pellets had a mix of grass and woody browse.

"Elk and deer inhabited the same area yet remained apart and we've found they can co-exist quite nicely," Anderson said. He related similar Michigan experiences where 35 deer per square mile inhabit an area that supports about 1,200 elk.

Researchers are also studying how elk are affected by logging, snowmobiling, and hound hunting for bear. Few effects have been noted.

Interactions with people, particularly hunters also take time. An Elk Awareness Program before each deer season posts warning signs on the periphery of the elk study area. Researchers and volunteers visit every deer hunting camp in and around the site to distribute brochures on how to distinguish elk from deer. Only one elk has been shot in four years.

When elk began crossing Highway 77, "Elk Crossing" signs were erected on a two-mile stretch of the road west of Clam Lake. Thus far only one minor collision was reported which didn't damage the car nor injure the elk calf.

The village of Clam Lake has embraced the newcomers. There's a large sign in the heart of town and elk photos by local residents line the walls of area businesses. Residents receive research progress reports and more elk-seeking tourists visit the area.

Anderson said local acceptance is good, but elk tend to get conditioned to people and autos. "Elk can become almost tame," he said, "especially if people feed the animals, which is undesirable."

Please don't feed the elk!

© Tom Foster, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Please don't feed the elk! © Tom Foster, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

He is also watching for crop damage. In their current range, the elk are having little effect on agriculture. However, if the herd expands, elk foraging on agricultural and private forest crops, will need to be addressed . Anderson believes elk will be accepted in Wisconsin and crop depredation can be managed to minimize problems, as it is in Michigan.

At their current growth rate, Anderson projects a state population of 500 to 600 animals in 11 years. More animals could also be brought in to boost the herd.

"We have the habitat," he said, "and elk are extremely adaptable." He noted large areas of public lands with little agriculture in northeastern Wisconsin and open prairie lands in western portions of the state. He noted the work of Jon Gilbert, a wildlife biologist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission who is mapping potential elk habitat using computer mapping techniques. Other researchers have done thesis projects on the elk's winter food habits, site preparation for elk release locations and habitat use throughout the year.

Bill Mytton, DNR big game ecologist, said the elk study will be completed this summer and findings will be compiled for public review by September. Thereafter, DNR will hold several open houses statewide to gather public comments on the future of elk in Wisconsin. "We would hope that those interested in elk and those who think they may be affected by a wild elk herd would come to express their opinions and concerns," Mytton said. Strategies to address those concerns will be incorporated in the state's future elk management plans. A public comment period will draw to a close in December 1999. Once information is analyzed, the DNR Secretary and Natural Resources Board will decide whether and where elk populations will be established across Wisconsin's varied landscape.

"Our final elk plan will identify potential range limits, population size and management strategies," Mytton said.

Just before elk were released at the Clam Lake site, , the spiritual leader of the Lac Court Oreilles band of the Chippewa Nation conducted a pipe ceremony to cleanse, sanctify and celebrate the return of this extirpated species to Wisconsin soil. Elders from most of the six Ojibway tribes in Wisconsin participated.

The Chippewa Nation once hunted widely for elk and revered it for providing food, clothing, tools and other benefits. In the pipe ceremony, the elders asked Earth Mother to accept back one of its lost children, to embrace elk for once again taking a rightful place in Wisconsin's grasslands and forests.

James C. Bishop, Jr. of Spooner is DNR's regional public affairs manager for northern Wisconsin.