MI: State eyes elk herd in west U.P.

Escanaba, Mich. – State wildlife officials are exploring the
possibility of establishing an elk herd in the western Upper
Peninsula and will present a report to the Natural Resources
Commission this year.

DNR Wildlife Chief Russ Mason recently discussed the topic at a
banquet for the Central Upper Peninsula Chapter of the Rocky
Mountain Elk Foundation in Escanaba. He said the department is
looking into the costs and environmental factors involved with
establishing a herd in the Porcupine Mountains, as well as other
areas in the western U.P.

“We are in the process of putting together what amounts to a
business case for our (Natural Resources) Commission. There are a
number of hurdles that would have to be overcome,” Mason told
Michigan Outdoor News. “The two limiting factors for elk are
habitat and wolves. And we have wolves.

“There are a whole lot of moving parts to this.”

Other major factors include the cost of relocating and monitoring
the elk, competition with deer for food and habitat, potential
agricultural damage, the state’s tuberculosis status with the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, and allocation of any future harvest to
Native American tribes with whom the state has no formal agreement,
Mason said.

“The average costs are running about $425,000 to $480,000 out of
the gate” to relocate the elk, Mason said. “After that, they would
have to build a huntable population and someone would have to watch
them.”

DNR biologist Bob Doepker said he was drafting an informal report
on the viability of relocating elk from northern Michigan to the
Porcupine Mountains. He’s now reworking the paper to include other
areas because the mountain range’s 200 to 250 inches of annual
snowfall likely would encourage the animals to migrate southeast to
private agricultural lands.

Doepker said he’s using Wisconsin’s Clam Lake elk herd –
established about 50 miles southwest of the Upper Peninsula’s
Michigan-Wisconsin border in 1995 – as a model.

“In 16 years, they have gone from 25 to about 150 to 160 elk,”
Doepker said. “I estimated the cost for our project … would be
about $2.5 million over 20 years to grow a population to
200.”

Those costs would include capturing elk in northern Michigan,
quarantining and testing the animals downstate, transporting them
to the Upper Peninsula, and releasing them over the course of
several weeks in a “soft release” to get them acclimated. The state
also would need to purchase radio telemetry equipment and hire a
biologist to track the herd’s progress, Doepker said.

Aside from the money, introducing another large game species into
the area also could pose problems with local deer hunters, he
said.

“If they even perceive there is a conflict with elk (and deer),
there will be concern,” Doepker said. “Elk, being two or three
times the size of deer, could outcompete them for food.”

Doepker said he plans to present his findings to the Natural
Resources Commission by the end of the summer.

George Anderson, co-chairman of the Central U.P. Chapter of the
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said he and fellow RMEF member Gary
Maynard had discussed the possibility of relocating elk with DNR
officials several times since the group formed 17 years ago.

“I was delighted to hear that the state is finally considering it,”
Anderson said. RMEF policy prohibits members from lobbying state
officials to establish an elk population. Anderson and Maynard
discussed the possibility with the DNR in the past as private
citizens, Anderson said, but substantial funding, up to several
hundred thousand dollars, is available through the RMEF for the
project if the DNR moves forward.

Anderson said hundreds who attended the RMEF banquet support the
idea, but he acknowledges that it could impact other species.

“We aren’t really interested in exchanging deer for elk in the
U.P.,” he said.

John Madigan, state Natural Resources Commission member from
Munising, said the NRC will consider the DNR’s preliminary findings
before deciding whether or not to initiate a more formal, in-depth
feasibility study. Private funding, the social aspects of
introducing elk above the bridge, and the potential economic boost
a herd could provide are also are factors that could play into the
discussion, he said.

“I would certainly be willing to look at it as a possibility,”
Madigan said. “If we can relocate them and it makes sense
biologically, socially, it may have some impact on the local
economy.

“It doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure.”

Mason said the issue could boil down to a matter of
priorities.

“I frankly think before we take a step in that direction we have to
have a … conversation with the hunting community,” he said. “In
order to do it, you have to stop doing other stuff (because of
funding), and the question is, is that what we really want?”

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