DNR says elk must ‘leave home’

Clam Lake, Wis. — Like that 20-something youngster who finds living with parents an overly comfortable lifestyle, Wisconsin’s elk seem not one bit interested in what lies beyond their current habitat – so the DNR is moving some of them to a new home.

Since the reintroduction of 25 elk from Michigan in 1995, there has been little outward migration of the herd from its original Sawyer County release site near Clam Lake.

Now, the agency is engaged in an “assisted dispersal” project to encourage the elk to “move out of the house.” Twelve elk were trapped and moved in 2011 to the Moose Lake area, and another dozen were moved in 2012.

That work is under way again, and so far eight cows and calves and three bulls have been moved  to an area south of Hwy. 70 near the towns of Loretta, Draper, and Winter. This area includes mostly state, county, and industrial forest lands, with the Flambeau River State Forest on the east end of the area. Those elk were released into corrals, where they will remain until after green-up so they can become acclimated to the area.

There are a number of factors involved in the decision to move elk, including slow distribution, predator impacts, and habitat, said Kevin Wallenfang, DNR big-game biologist.

“To date, the elk population has only used about 10 percent of the area within the Clam Lake elk range,” he said.

Wallenfang said the forest in the Clam Lake area outside of the herd’s current “home range” has matured and is not providing the desired quality of habitat.

“The elk spend most of their time on private lands that are enrolled in MFL programs because that is where the best habitat is. As a result, they are fairly easily found by predators in concentrated areas,” he said.

Laine Stowell, DNR biologist in charge of the dispersal operation, said clear-cut aspen sites offer the best habitat.

“The past 18 years of telemetry work in the Clam Lake area has shown that clear-cut aspen sites, one to 10 years post-cutting, are the most favored areas chosen by the elk,” Stowell said.

The process of trapping and moving elk is not for the faint of heart, as trapping activities are conducted in the dead of winter.

“Deep snow has to be plowed, bait sites have to be baited every day, seven days a week,” Stowell said. While the cold weather impacts worker effectiveness, he notes that Wisconsin’s winter conditions don’t seem to bother the elk.

“We trap and move elk during the coldest part of the year because it’s easiest to attract elk within a trap,” Stowell said.

The health of the animal is the overriding consideration, however, as temperatures during other parts of the year are too warm.

“The elk would overheat and die if handled in the spring, summer, or fall,” he said.

Eight cows and four bulls were moved to an area near Moose Lake in Sawyer County in 2011. This herd produced four calves in the spring of 2013.

“The Moose Lake group has shown a strong affinity to the area,” Stowell said.

Another grouping east of Moose Lake has been less successful. The seven cows and five bulls released there in 2012 refused to set up housekeeping, some moving toward either Moose Lake or nearby Ghost Lake, also in Sawyer County.

“The rest returned to Clam Lake – not the desired result,” he said.

Sportsmen in the area are generally in agreement with the DNR’s approach. As chair of the Ashland County delegation to the Conservation Congress, Bruce Prentice keeps abreast of developments in his area.

Prentice agrees that expanding the range is a good idea.

“I think it’s a worthwhile effort not to keep them concentrated in their original zone,” he said. “As long as (the DNR) communicates with landowners and farmers, and they’re OK with it.”

“The public is very receptive to it,” said retired DNR fisheries biologist Frank Pratt, who resides in Hayward. “I think everybody was aware it might happen. People up here really love the elk.”

DNR officials and cooperating groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Safari Club International, and tribes agree that elk dispersal and population growth are issues that have to be addressed.

However, officials do not see the lack of herd dispersal or the less-than-anticipated growth of the herd as a failure of reintroduction efforts. 

“What we are seeing is fairly typical of the reintroduction of many species,” Wallenfang said. “It isn’t uncommon to see some growing pains, then all of a sudden they hit a critical population level and their numbers take off.

“Would we like to see the herd take off? You bet!”

Officials also remain optimistic about the potential for introducing new genetic strains to Wisconsin’s elk herd from another state. While no specific arrangements have been made, the Clam Lake population could increase by another 75 animals, with a similar number to be introduced near Black River Falls. The elk herd in Wisconsin is currently estimated at less than 200 animals. More population work will be conducted in March.

Stowell anticipates the dispersal project will continue until elk reside across the entire Clam Lake elk range. Or, as he puts it, “until someone tells me to stop.” 

In addition to the groups mentioned above, other groups and individuals assisting with the project include Wisconsin Friends of Wildlife, Dr. Ed Metcalf, D.V.M., Forest Service, DNR Wildlife Health Team,

Shiocton and Winter deer research crews, and DNR wildlife technicians Christine Priest and Josh Spiegel.

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