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Elk Herd in Wisconsin
Frequently Asked Questions




1) "Are elk native to Wisconsin?"

Answer: Historically, elk ranged over the entire state. They were wiped out around the turn of the century by over-hunting. Although elk primarily inhabited the prairie/savannah lands of the southern portion of the state, most of the currently suitable elk habitat is in the north. This change is due to the large scale conversion of land in the south from prairie to agriculture.

2) "What was the five-year study?"

Answer: Researchers from the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point undertook the experiment with funding from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. In 1995, 25 radio-collared elk were released into the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest just south of Clam Lake, Wisconsin. The Researchers have been following their movements with radio-telemetry and studying their survival, reproduction, feeding habits, and dispersal. In May of 1999, the University completed its field work. Responsibility for monitoring the herd now lies with the Department of Natural Resources

3) "Where are the elk now? How many are there?"

Answer: Although the researchers identified over 300 miles 2 of core elk range within the 700 mile 2 study area, the elk are only using about 40 miles 2 of the study. They have stayed relatively close to the release site south of Clam Lake. Since 1995 when there were 25 animals released, the population has grown to about 80-90 elk.

4) "What else has the study shown?"

Answer: The research to date shows that the study area provides suitable habitat for the elk herd. The winters of 1995-1996 and 1996-1997 were two of the hardest on record. Despite this, the herd survived. Possibly as a result of the unusually cold, snowy winters and younger aged breeding bulls, reproduction was lower the first two years of the study. From 1997-1999, however, birth rates were as expected. Dispersal, monitored using radio telemetry, has been moderate to date.

5) "Will the population eventually expand statewide?"

Answer: The Department of Natural Resources is not undertaking a statewide reintroduction. Elk will be managed in a few relatively small, localized herds.

6) "Will elk compete with white-tailed deer?"

Answer: In Michigan, where the herd reintroduction in the mid 1980's has expanded to a population of 1,300 elk, there has not been a significant negative impact on the white-tailed deer population. Michigan provides a good comparison to Wisconsin because of the similarity of the habitat in the elk range of the two states. The Clam Lake herd similarly has not negatively impacted the deer population in the Chequamegon Forest.

7) "Won't elk cause agricultural damage?"

Answer: The Department, in conjunction with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, has developed a map of biologically and socially suitable elk range in Wisconsin. A pre-requisite of any potential elk release area is a high proportion of public land. This will minimize the overlap between elk range and crop lands.

8 ) "Will there be elk viewing areas?"

Answer: The U.S. Forest Service is currently constructing two elk viewing areas for the enjoyment of wildlife enthusiasts.

9) "Will elk damage native vegetation?"

Answer: The elk study in Clam Lake has not shown any significant damage done by elk to native plants communities. Any time a species is placed upon the landscape, there will be an ecosystem effect. However, elk are a native species to Wisconsin, and have a legitimate place within the ecosystem.

10) "How will it be decided if and when there will be additional releases of elk?"

Answer: A release protocol will be established whereby decisions will be made about further releases. Before any releases occur, there would first need to be endorsements of the proposal by local governments, preparation of a site-specific elk management plan and environmental assessment, public participation of the management plan, and approval by the Department. Currently, there is a proposal to reintroduce elk into the central forest of Wisconsin.

11) "Does reintroduction of wild animals pose a health risk to other wildlife or domestic livestock?"

Answer: Elk can be hosts to a variety of diseases just like cattle or deer. However, a strict health protocol was followed before the Clam Lake release and would be followed for any further introductions. Before any animals are brought into Wisconsin, they undergo a ninety-day quarantine in the state of capture and are tested for a large variety of diseases. There has been no indication that the Clam Lake herd has experienced any health problems.

12) "Will there eventually be public hunting opportunities with the elk herd?"

Answer: When the Clam Lake herd becomes large enough to be considered a game species, hunting will be written into the elk management plan. How many years away the prospect of hunting will depend upon the speed with which the herd grows and whether or not further introductions occur.

13) "Since there are so few elk, are they classified as endangered or threatened?"

Answer: Elk are classified as protected, not as an endangered or threatened species in the State of Wisconsin. Since there is no hunting season on elk, it is illegal to shoot an elk. Hunters, especially in the Chequamegon National Forest, need to be able to distinguish an elk from a deer.

Clam lake elk range
 

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Thanks for the info. I didn't know much about Elk in Wisconsin except the ones I see in game farms around here. A few years ago one was found dead in the town of Pacwaukee, near Montello. I wonder if he was from a game farm, or if he wandered south.

Again, thanks.
 

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It looks like any future hunting opprtunites for elk will get set back. The numbers are down[/color]


By Bill Thornley

Wednesday, October 5, 2005 11:41 AM EDT

“The elk have been active this year,” said DNR elk biologist Laine Stowell as we prepared to enter the Chequamegon National Forest before dawn.

Those dark, cool hours just before daylight arrives are when elk, especially the breeding bulls, are most active.

As with many things this autumn, bugling by the bulls seemed to have started earlier than normal. The first bugles heard by Clam Lake biologists were recorded on Aug. 21. By mid-September the rut was in full swing. It dies down by early October, Stowell said.

This has been a tough year for the elk herd. Once numbering 126 known animals, Stowell now estimates there are only 108 elk, and that comes after the calving season.




“We have had a fair amount of mortality,” Stowell said. “There were probably 30 calves born this spring. It was our best calf-searching season. This year we put out 17 tracking collars, but we’ve already lost six of those 17 calves.”

Two died of low birth weight. While an average calf weighs about 36 pounds, those two were 17 and 18 pounds, too weak to even nurse.

Another concern has been liver flukes, a parasite that attacks and destroys the liver of an elk. Three yearlings have been lost to liver flukes, including a male that had 100 percent of his liver destroyed.

A grant from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will be used to study the situation, which includes checking droppings for eggs of liver flukes and brain worms.

We pulled onto a dark side road not far from Clam Lake. Using tracking equipment, Stowell began electronically checking out what might be in the area. Several “blips” indicated that elk were nearby.

We stood outside the truck, listening as the faint light of day began to illuminate the surroundings. To the north, a deep, guttural scream split the darkness. A bull elk, not far away, was gathering his cows. He erupted again, bugling with all his might. About two seconds later Stowell and I were heading into the forest, in the direction of the hypnotic sound. We moved quickly, trying to be as quiet as possible. That’s a tall order in a slashing area with twisted branches and downed timber everywhere.

A thick morning dew covered the entire landscape, with wispy clouds of fog hanging over the low areas. It didn’t take long before we were soaked, but as the bugles grew closer our pace picked up. We were walking directly into a face-to-face meeting with a bull.

Disease hasn’t been the only thing to thin the elk herd. In the past year, two other elk were lost to bears, and two were hit on the highway by vehicles.

Further, “On July 14, cow No. 14, The Hurley Girl, was killed by wolves,” Stowell said. “She was 18 to 20 years old, one of the originals. She was the one we rescued from the West Fork last winter when she fell through the ice.”

The wolves also killed a pair of 2-year-old bulls in the past year. A third bull may have been a victim.

“We received a mortality signal from bull No. 152, a yearling,” Stowell said. “We strongly suspect it was taken by the same pack of wolves. We couldn’t find him. The signal came from a remote, swampy area. Then the collar suddenly went dead. We suspect the wolves were probably chewing on it.”

Back to the chase. As we moved through the dark, another sound greeted us as geese lifted off of some nearby water and glided overhead. The sun topped the far horizon, casting an incredible golden glow over the forest.

A second bull let loose with a nearby bugle. Suddenly we could hear the breaking of twigs and branches about 100 yards away, and four cows trotted in front of us. Stowell bugled, hoping to get a response. He got one, about 50 years away, up a steep hill.

We dropped down and paralleled a logging trail, offering cow chirps and whistles as we moved. Dozens of fresh tracks dotted the muddy trail.

The first bull was close, but still unseen. We headed straight uphill toward the loud, beautiful bugle. Topping the hill, we spotted the bull, standing in a patch of dark timber.

He looked right at us, but at that moment his rival bugled just over a ridge. Several cows were wandering in the vicinity, but they - and we - weren’t important. The big 6 x 6 had his attention on one thing - his unseen rival. Slowly he turned and moved out of the shadows.

The cow Stowell rescued after it fell through the ice was probably weakened from the experience, making her easier prey for the wolves that eventually took her life. The ice she fell through was located close to a backyard feeding area. She wasn’t the only one. Two young bulls also fell through nearby and drowned.

Stowell said feeding elk by humans is killing the animals; it concentrates them in areas where they either venture onto the ice, get hit by vehicles, or fall victim to parasites such as liver flukes.

“We try to contact landowners in the Clam Lake area and encourage them not to feed,” Stowell said. “Legally, though, we can’t stop them from putting out two gallons as they would with deer.

“If education doesn’t work, if they are still falling through the ice, getting hit, concentrating where they get parasites, then we have to go to the Legislature,” he said. “We have to tell them that if we want elk in northern Wisconsin we have to protect them through legislation. People in Clam Lake have been very supportive, but some are killing them with kindness.”

As the big 6 x 6 slowly, gracefully, moved into the open, he was bathed in the orange glow of the morning sun. His antlers swayed as he moved. He carried them in a most royal manner.

We could hear his rival raking a tree with his antlers on the other side of the hill, and the sound seemed to be whipping the 6 x 6 into a lather.

He stopped on top of the ridge and threw his head back, unleashing a low groan that raised suddenly into a high-pitched scream followed by several grunts. Thick, white breath escaped his lungs, circling his head as he repeated the bugle. It was nothing short of spectacular.

The 6 x 6 stepped over the rim and disappeared, possibly to confront his challenger. A few cows scurried into the bushes.

“We’d better just back out of here,” said Stowell, not wanting to disturb the monarch and his foe. We’d already been treated to enough incredible drama in the wild for one morning.

We made our way back to our vehicle, took some readings, and headed to another area. On the way, we spotted a nice 5 x 5 bull walking across an open bog near the Torch River. Taking some readings, Stowell could tell there were some cows nearby, which could have been why the bull was moving in that direction. The bugle boys of September and early October are in love in the Chequamegon forest … or at least in lust.

“These 40-degree nights really get them stirred up,” Stowell said.

He said the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has been a fantastic partner in bringing elk to Wisconsin, so far contributing more than $400,000 to the project. Thanks to RMEF, the herd monitoring can take place.

Stowell told of an eerie encounter with one of the predators that take elk.

“I bugled one morning and got a response,” he said. “But it wasn’t from an elk, it was from a wolf. It was a long, draw-out call. That was a first for me.”

The Ghost Lake, Black Lake, and Torch River packs have long inhabited the same territory as the elk, though the Black Lake pack has disappeared, allowing members of the other packs to take over the territory.

“The Ghost Lake pack have become competent hunters of elk,” Stowell said. “Six of their kills have been bulls. This past winter calf No. 153 was mortally injured, with a bite to the ham and throat.”

Stowell listed several more recent kills, but added that elk are what they are because of predators like wolves, which have programmed them for generations.

“If an animal becomes sick, it becomes an outcast,” he said. “The herd will leave that animal. The wolves provide a function, keeping the herd strong. And the sick animals provide a diversion, protecting the rest of the herd.”

The biggest killer of elk, however, walks on two legs.

“People are the main factor,” Stowell said. “If we had just bear and wolf predation, the population would grow 10 to 15 percent each year.

“From 1995 we’ve had 11 killed by vehicles, two were shot accidentally, and four fell into the Chippewa River close to a feeding operation - three drowned. A photo was taken showing 20-plus elk by the river. Later we got the call that those four had fallen through. If those 20 had fallen through it would have been devastating.”

The RMEF has helped, providing funding for seed and easements, and offering assistance so local residents may plant food plots that benefit elk and limit their reliance on human feeding.

http://www.wisconsinoutdoornews.com/articles/2005/10/06//hunting_and_fishing_features/hunting1.txt
 
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