Elk calf capture suspended; elk moved to new area

Hayward, Wis. — Despite coming off the bleakest winter and seconded-latest spring since elk were reintroduced into Wisconsin in 1995, about 40 elk calves will be born this spring in the Clam Lake Elk Range, DNR biologists estimate.

DNR studies based on 13 years of calving season observations predict between three and eight of those calves will perish during the calving season (May through June), but for the most part, elk have adapted well to life in Wisconsin despite the fact that the herd is growing more slowly than anticipated.

Before the calving season began, the herd stood at just less than 160 animals, with 14 of last year’s 37 calves perishing during an exceptionally hard winter.

The most challenging obstacle for elk during the 2013-14 winter was not necessarily the snowfall or cold, but the duration of both. In the past, pregnant cows that made it through to spring vegetation, though, seemed, for the most part, to have healthy calves, and DNR elk biologist Laine Stowell expects that to remain true this year, as well.

“Calves can be below average in weight due to late spring green-up, but most adult elk give birth to normal-sized calves, indicating that elk are well adapted to Wisconsin winters,” Stowell said.

Stowell said cows that are between 3 and 14 years of age by mating season are the most productive females in the herd, with about a 90 percent birth rate. Birth rates of cows 15 years of age and older drop to 46 percent, and 2-year-olds have about a 33 percent birth rate.

That information has been compiled through annual spring calf captures conducted each year since 1999. This spring, however, calf captures have ceased.

Biologists like Stowell will now rely on an extensive network of trail cameras across the elk range to track spring calving.

“This survey was work-intensive and expensive regarding the amount of telemetry miles that had to be done to adequately determine cow calving status,” Stowell said.

“It was felt that the less invasive camera survey could gather cow-calf ratios over time, and winter trapping (would allow the DNR to) collar calves incidental to assisted dispersal efforts.”

One downside to ending calf searches is the loss of hands-on participation of about 170 citizen volunteers per year who would scour the woodlands for the youngsters.

“It was a difficult decision to make, but we decided it was best for the elk,” Stowell said.

Elk-management strategies such as this are frequently updated to reflect the latest observations of the herd with all changes approved by the Natural Resource Board via elk plan amendments.

Another such amendment, included in the latest update to the plan in December 2012, was a 508-square-mile expansion to the CLER. The expansion covers a three-county corner, where Sawyer, Rusk, and Price counties meet, and includes the entire Flambeau River State Forest.

The result is a new territory managed for sustained timber yield through logging – far different from the Chequamegon National Forest, where most of the herd resides.

Those timber sales keep FRSF habitat in good shape for many wildlife species, including elk. The new range is composed of 93,000 acres of the FRSF, and 50,000 acres of county forest lands in Sawyer, 24,000 acres in Rusk, and 20,000 acres in Price counties. The area also includes 30,000 acres of industrial forest and 9,000 acres of Kimberly Clark Wildlife Area, meaning 78 percent of the new territory has public access.

The expansion brings the total elk range to more than 1,600 square miles.

Most of the added range avoids agricultural areas and is primarily composed of a large block of state, county, and industrial forest land that has the most abundant aspen resources in the region, as is stated in the DNR elk plan.

In January and February this year, field teams moved five bulls and 10 cows into the new range, which lies south of the original range. The idea is to expand the herd into new, and ideally, better, habitat than is currently found in the Chequamegon National Forest. The elk are in an acclimation pen, with plans to release them into 1,382 acres of young aspen – the elk’s favorite – in the near future.

“Four cows were pregnant and we know at least three calves have been born in the pen,” Stowell said, adding that bear harvests in the new range have been above average for several years because the area has plenty of public access for the Zone A bear hunt.

“We also know that five wolves were harvested. Five other wolf mortalities were observed in the expanded range in 2013,” he said.

Wolf harvest, too, is another departure from the original elk range near Clam Lake due to current trapping prohibitions in the DNR’s marten restoration project range that overlaps with the CLER in that area. Natural Resources Board members have asked the DNR to find a way to allow wolf trapping in the marten area.

As for the question as to when the herd will reach 200 animals to allow for a hunt, Stowell said it’s hard to tell. When the original 25 elk were released in 1995, DNR officials estimated a hunt might be possible between 2005 and 2008.

“We’re just coming off of the worse winter and the second-latest spring we’ve had since elk arrived,” he said. “We’ve seen impacts to calves and pregnant cows due to this past winter and late spring. It would be too close for me to predict whether we will cross the 200 threshold in the Clam Lake herd in 2015.”

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