Up to 50 elk could reach Wisconsin by March

Madison — An agreement signed by Kentucky and Wisconsin earlier this month paves the way for the Wisconsin DNR to trap and move 150 Kentucky elk to this state during the next five years.

Any elk trapped this winter will be released in the Black River State Forest in Jackson County to establish a second Wisconsin herd.

All elk trapped in 2016 will be released in the Clam Lake area to bolster the original herd that began in 1995 with the release of 25 elk from Michigan. That herd is still struggling to reach 200 animals.

Wisconsin had three full-time DNR “wildlifers” in Kentucky prior to the signing to meet Kentucky wildlife crews, scout trapping areas, and familiarize themselves with traps and holding pens already in place.

The agreement allows the state to trap up to 50 elk per year, but the maximum transfer is limited to 150 animals.

“We have a couple of years for wiggle room,” said Kevin Wallenfang, the DNR’s deer and elk ecologist.

All trapping must be completed by the first Friday in February each year. This year, that date is Feb. 6.

“We have some staff down there right now,” Wallenfang said Jan. 9. “It (trapping) started a little slow. There were some access issues. We worked those out.”

Wisconsin will not be getting any mature bulls from Kentucky. The agreement calls for mostly cows and calves and some young bulls – mostly spike bulls. At least some of the cows should be pregnant and dropping calves shortly after they arrive in Jackson County.

The DNR’s goal is to build that herd to about 390 elk in Jackson County. The goal is 1,400 animals in Ashland and Sawyer counties around Clam Lake.

When the 50th elk is captured, or on Feb. 10, whichever comes first, the clock starts ticking on a 30-day quarantine in Kentucky.

“On Day 30 they will get tested. If everything is OK, they can come to Wisconsin and they will be held for another 90 days. The total quarantine time will be 120 days,” Wallenfang said.

“Kentucky has never had TB or CWD – those are the two biggest things to worry about. Their deer and elk also test clean for brucellosis,” he said.

Interestingly enough, game farms and shooting preserves are not allowed in Kentucky.

The next concern would be releasing new elk into a diseased area here at home. In leading up to this trap/transfer effort, the DNR tested in Jackson County and the Clam Lake area in 2012 and 2013 for CWD and other diseases.

“We’re making sure we bring them from a clean state into a clean environment,” Wallenfang said.

The release date will be around June 1. Cows will begin calving shortly after that date – another reason the DNR did not want to try splitting the newcomers between Jackson County and Clam Lake this year.

The trapping will be done in much the same way elk are trapped in Wisconsin, but Kentucky’s traps are lighter and more mobile. They can be torn down, moved, and set up in a couple of hours.

Wisconsin has not had to invest any money in traps or holding pens. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation paid for that infrastructure previously when Missouri and Virginia received elk from Kentucky.

“We don’t have to spend any money on that kind of stuff. We just have to cover the trapping operation, getting the animals to Wisconsin, and holding them here,” Wallenfang said.

To further reduce costs, the state’s three full-time wildlifers – and two part-time employees who will stay behind to care for the elk and provide security during the 30-day quarantine – are bunking at low-cost state park cabins where they are “crock-potting” their meals instead of eating in restaurants.

“We rented vehicles there instead of taking state vehicles down there because it was a lot cheaper. We’re pinching pennies everywhere,” Wallenfang added.

The Wisconsin crew also includes two people from the wildlife health team.

“It’s been a cool project because of all of the partnerships involved – not just between our state and Kentucky, but everyone that has been involved.  Everyone is working together to make this happen. Kentucky has been great to work with,” Wallenfang said.

“The value of great partners cannot be overstated,” said Al Jacobson, a Conservation Congress delegate and Jackson County Wildlife Fund board member who has been hoping to see elk in that county for over a decade. “Thanks to the combined efforts of several partners, the dream of a generation will finally be fulfilled for the people of Jackson County.”

In return for the elk, Wisconsin foresters and biologists eventually will travel to Kentucky to assist that state with habitat work that includes an emphasis on ruffed grouse.

The Clam Lake herd has been fluctuating between 160 and 180 animals. The count is currently closer to 160. The herd had the potential to produce 35 to 40 calves this past spring, but it appears that only six to eight survived, based on trail camera observations. The late spring, with snow, rain, and cold, left the cows in rough shape.

“Elk carried winter coats into June and they were thin,” Wallenfang said.

Wisconsin once had elk in 52 of its 72 counties.

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