Kentucky considered as source for more Wisconsin elk

Madison — If the DNR’s preliminary field work and an updated elk plan evolve into an endorsement by the Natural Resources Board, the state could begin receiving elk from Kentucky by 2014 to expand the Clam Lake herd and establish a new herd in Jackson County.

Kevin Wallenfang, DNR big-game ecologist, and Tamara Ryan, Wildlife Health Section chief, traveled to Kentucky in late April to meet with wildlife biologists in that state to begin talking about transferring elk to Wisconsin from Kentucky.

Wisconsin DNR biologists and sportsmen have been watching the Clam Lake herd struggle to grow for the past five to eight years. A herd that once numbered around 180 or so has dropped to about 153 animals heading into this year’s calving season. Recent calf survival has not reached earlier levels, and adult elk are being lost to predators and vehicle strikes.

The Wisconsin elk herd began in 1995 with 25 elk donated by the state of Michigan.

Kentucky began its herd the same year by bringing in a few more than 1,500 elk from six western states. Kentucky’s herd now numbers more than 10,000 elk, and those animals are spilling into Virginia and Tennessee. Virginia is now creating an elk management plan of its own, thanks to Kentucky’s success.

The good news for Wisconsin is that Kentucky wants to give away some elk, and because Virginia and Missouri already are on the list to receive elk from Kentucky, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has paid for capture, holding, and testing corrals that can be used by Wisconsin if this state is allowed to capture Kentucky elk.

“Kentucky has lots of elk. Their reintroduction was hugely successful, they have no disease issues, they have elk to spare – which is hard to find right now in a disease-free state – and they said they are going to be in the elk-moving business for some time,” Wallenfang said. “They were excited to have us come down there.”

He warned that all of this elk-moving talk is in its infancy, though.

“We are in the process of rewriting our elk management plan, which lays all of this out. That plan then has to be reviewed by sportsmen and approved by the (NRB). Everything depends on a lot of things coming together, and that includes (talking to Kentucky’s natural resources) commission,” he said.

Kentucky’s counterpart to Wisconsin’s NRB has approved elk trapping and transfer to other states, so Wallenfang and Ryan do not expect that to be a problem.

There has been some talk about trading Wisconsin ruffed grouse for Kentucky elk, but the project would not hinge on that exchange. What it might do, however, is grease the skids a bit in allowing the state to receive more elk per year than Kentucky is willing to release. Kentucky currently does not release more than 50 elk per year, “but they want ruffed grouse and said that if we could provide them with ruffed grouse, they might be able to remove that limit,” or increase the limit, with approval by that state’s natural resources commission, Wallenfang said.

No ruffed grouse numbers have been discussed, and Kentucky wouldn’t want the birds for at least five years because the state wants to do some logging ahead of any grouse release so there’s habitat available for the birds.

If the project moves forward, it would start with 25 elk in the Central Forest Region of Jackson County near Black River Falls; the remainder would go to the Clam Lake herd in an area just south of the existing herd.

“It would be an area that is already identified as elk range. It wouldn’t be a new herd, but an expansion of the existing herd south to county and state forest, and paper company land where there is more logging and aspen regeneration going on,” he said.

Wallenfang said the DNR would like to bolster the Clam Lake herd because of losses to vehicles and predators.

“Part of the reason for the predator loss is because the habitat is not what we expected it to be when the elk were first released in 1995,” he said. “We anticipated more logging, with aspen regeneration popping up on the national forest and that’s just not happening, so the elk are concentrated in smaller areas of good habitat – mostly on private MFL (Managed Forest Law) land where there is cutting going on – and that makes it easier for predators to find them. The population should be able to grow faster by moving them to better habitat – they can spread out over bigger area.”

Wallenfang said the Black River Falls release has been on the books for some time, but it never took place because CWD was found in Wisconsin in 2002, and CWD also hit the donor elk herd in the Elk Island National Park in Alberta.

He said that as the elk plan moves forward, the DNR will monitor the CWD situation in Washburn County, which is about 70 miles from the Clam Lake elk herd.

If the plan does move forward, he sees the state getting 50 or more elk per year from Kentucky for several years. The elk would be cows, calves, and spike bulls.

“We’d like to have at least 250 elk – how many years it would take would depend on their mission,” he said.

Wallenfang and Ryan made the trip to Kentucky at no cost to Wisconsin sportsmen. The money was donated by local supporters, who raised the money with a fish fry.

Wallenfang said the trapping and transferring could be done at a nominal cost, too, because RMEF has sunk $90,000 into corrals and pens that Wisconsin can use at no cost. State personnel could be lodged at cabins in Kentucky’s state forests that are near the capture sites.

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