Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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WI: State’s elk herd growing slowly

Clam Lake, Wis. – Wisconsin now has at least 168 elk, 16 years
after the 2005 reintroduction of 25 Michigan elk to the wild
landscape of Ashland, Sawyer, and Bayfield counties.

The largest the herd has ever been was this spring when it totaled
about 176 animals following the calving season.

The herd is monitored by DNR biologists Laine Stowell and Matt
McKay, with seasonal assistance from volunteers. McKay, the DNR
assistant elk biologist, said this spring department personnel
found and radio-collared 22 calves. But McKay believes as many as
35 calves were born.

“Elk breed from about age 3 to 15 years of age, and have a calf
sometimes every year or every other year,” he said. “Calves are
normally born in late May and early June and weigh about 35
pounds.”

Of the 22 new calves, at least 13 (or 59 percent) had died by the
end of September. Last year the herd grew by 16 percent, but the
previous year it saw no growth.

Most of the loss so far this year has been due to predators,
including four to wolves and three to bears. One calf died due to
accidental drowning, and a few were born underweight and didn’t
survive.

McKay said that after being born, calves are vulnerable to bears
for the first eight weeks, but after that can outrun them. However,
wolves can catch and kill calves at any time.

The DNR monitors the herd with radio collars that are put on the
animals, usually during winter live-trapping efforts, and it
currently has radio collars on 89 elk. In the spring as calves are
born, researchers will track the cows and then capture newborn
calves and put radio collars on them to monitor survival.

Stowell and McKay drive the countryside each Monday to record
signals from the radio collars, and that indicates how many elk are
still alive and gives their location so the biologists know what
type of habitat the elk are using.

If an elk dies or is killed by predators, the collar gives off a
special signal. Biologists can then find the animal and determine
what killed it.

Over the years, predators and vehicles have been the biggest causes
of death for Wisconsin’s elk.

Of a total of 173 known dead elk over the years, 62 were killed by
wolves, 27 by vehicles, 25 by bears, 11 deaths were of undetermined
cause, seven were from parasites, seven from complications at
birth, six from drowning, three from natural accidents, and two
from dogs. Three elk were illegally killed by hunters who mistook
them for deer.

By monitoring the radio collars, McKay said they know that elk
currently have a home range of about 95 square miles. The range
extends east from Clam Lake toward Glidden, southeast toward
Butternut, and west toward Hayward.

The goal is to eventually have 1,400 elk around Clam Lake. If the
herd reaches 200 animals, there would be a limited hunting season
on bulls. A lottery drawing would be held for bull permits, and the
sale of permits would help fund management of elk.

The DNR has worked on an “assisted dispersal” program to help the
elk avoid wolf predation and expand away from Clam Lake. Working
with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission and the
U.S. Forest Service, Stowell and McKay have identified four sites
for elk release to establish other colonies of elk within elk
range.

This past winter the DNR moved 12 elk (four yearling bulls, four
yearling cows, two 2-year-old cows, and two 3-year-old cows)
southeast of Moose Lake. Those elk continue to stay where they’ve
been released, and it’s possible that five to seven calves will be
born to this group next year.

The DNR and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have worked to improve
and preserve open land for elk, and to provide habitat for the
future. Some of the work has included managing for open grasslands
and setting up timber sales for clear-cuts to regenerate aspen,
which is a preferred food of elk.

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