Wild Wisconsin elk are expanding their range – with a little help from their friends

This is the calving season for Wisconsin’s small but growing elk
herd and biologists with the state Department of Natural Resources,
joined by a small army of volunteers, are busy searching the woods
for newborns.

The search is expanded this year because a dozen of Wisconsin’s
wild elk, all young animals, were trapped this past winter and were
moved to an “acclimation pen” 10 miles distant from the main herd
as the crow flies.

That pen – a black plastic wall that surrounded 2.3 acres of
forest around Clam Lake – was breached this past Wednesday by DNR
biologists who quickly retreated after leaving piles of alfalfa
outside the opening. This allowed the wary elk to wander out into
their new territory, undisturbed by humans.

They’ll make quick work of the alfalfa and will then start in on
the forest, concentrating on new growth along the edges of openings
in the forest canopy. They may have a preference for large-leaf
aspen, but for elk – an ungulate whose large rumen allows it to
digest an even greater variety of plants than white-tailed deer –
it’s all food.

“Elk are eating machines,” said DNR elk biologist Laine Stowell.
“They eat almost everything.”

There are four young bulls in the group, all 2 years old, and
eight cows, ages 2 to 4. Three of the cows are pregnant. This
operation is an “assisted dispersal,” a way of encouraging the herd
to expand its range, which may in turn help the herd grow and
remain healthy.

The reintroduction of wild elk in Wisconsin, which began with
the release of 25 transplanted animals in May 1995, is a wildlife
success story that is still unfolding. Progress has been slow at
times, and there have been difficulties, but the herd has grown to
about 150 animals.

It now seems likely the autumn bugling of elk, like the call of
the loon, will become emblematic of the wild beauty of Wisconsin’s
Northwoods.

“I’m a lifelong resident of this area,” said Ed Metcalf, a large
animal veterinarian who has provided invaluable assistance to the
elk program. “I never thought I’d be able to drive 15 miles and see
elk. I’ve gone out a few times when they were bugling and listened
to them. It’s kind of special for people who get that
opportunity.”

The return of wild elk to Wisconsin is a collaborative effort.
Initiated by the University of Wisconsin, the effort is managed by
the DNR with assistance from the U.S. Forest Service, the Great
Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Rocky Mountain Elk
Foundation and a large number of interested individuals, landowners
and volunteers.

Stowell said that although the herd has grown to six times its
original size in 16 years, it had not expanded beyond about 10
percent of the 1,112 square miles of the Chequamegon-Nicolet
National Forest originally designated as elk range.

Among the factors slowing herd growth is the presence of State
Hwy. 77 and the vehicle collisions that result. A motorist elk
warning system installed in 2006, featuring flashing lights
activated by the proximity of elk collars, has reduced annual
fatalities from 2.9 per 100 elk to 1.4.

Additionally, the wolf packs in the immediate vicinity of the
herd have become expert elk hunters and have removed increasing
numbers of animals in recent years. It will take years for wolves
in the new area to develop the same level of expertise.

The animals most vulnerable to various forms of mortality are
calves, which have about a 50 percent survival rate, and yearling
elk, which experience a 23 percent rate of mortality. Most elk
losses occur from January through mid May. The 12 young elk in the
acclimation pen were protected during this period. This will allow
them to acclimate to new surroundings under less dangerous
conditions.

The elk were captured in corral traps. This is an enclosed pen
45 feet in diameter. It has a swinging door with a counter weight
that is held open by a cable and triggering mechanism that is
activated by a radio signal from a blind 100 yards away.

“We’ve caught as few as two elk and as many as 31 elk at one
time,” Stowell said.

This past January, the DNR captured 95 elk, but with some being
caught more than once, it worked out to 58 individual animals. Of
these, 25 cows, eight bulls and one calf received new collars,
which last about five years. Another six calves got their first
collar. Some of the older elk have been collared two or three
times.

Trapping is done with minimal human contact. Once corralled, elk
are darted with immobilizing chemicals. Blood samples and other
biological information are collected. Collars are replaced when
necessary. The animals are hooded when handled and those being
relocated were transported in livestock trailers with individual
compartments.

The hope is that these young elk will adapt to their new
surroundings. Learning how elk relate to various types of habitat
is part of the ongoing project. A large lake and two rivers
separate these youngsters from the main herd. It remains to be seen
whether that will be enough.

“From what I’ve heard, people have seen them swimming across
some of the smaller lakes,” Metcalf said.

 

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