State-bound elk set for the next phase of move

Madison — The first step in the process of establishing an elk herd in Jackson County reached completion Feb. 9, when trapping of Kentucky elk ended for the winter.

A capture team consisting of Wisconsin DNR and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources staff trapped elk in the eastern coal fields region of Kentucky this winter. The captured elk were trucked to a holding pen where they are being held under quarantine for at least 30 days, after which time they will undergo testing for several diseases before being transported to Wisconsin. Once in Wisconsin, the elk will remain under quarantine for another 90 days before being released.

“This was a flawless operation,” said Kevin Wallenfang, DNR big-game ecologist. “We did not capture 50 elk, but that’s OK. Fifty was the maximum we could take this year under our five-year agreement.”

That agreement calls for the trapping of up to 50 cows, calves, and yearling bulls per year for a total of 150 animals.

This year the crews captured 28 elk. Testing and changing conditions during the quarantine period will determine how many elk travel to Wisconsin. 

DNR biologists Mike Zeckmeister and Christine Priest head up the five-person Wisconsin team, which will remain in Kentucky during the quarantine period. The team will keep an eye on the elk and provide security for the quarantined animals.

The health tests and follow-up procedures are quite rigorous, according to Tami Ryan, DNR Wildlife Health Section chief. Disease testing and interstate movement of wild animals are regulated by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and by the USDA.

“The captured elk will be tested for brucellosis, tuberculosis, blue tongue virus, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, and bovine viral diarrhea,” Ryan said. “If any animals test positive for brucellosis or tuberculosis, they will be culled and cultured. If any brucellosis or tuberculosis cultures come back positive, the entire group will be disqualified for translocation. Any individuals with positive reactors to the viral diseases will not be moved to Wisconsin.”

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Jackson County Wildlife Fund, and the Ho-Chunk Nation funded the trapping operation. Additional funding for the project came from other local businesses and groups, including a Black River Falls brewing company, which has introduced a beer to commemorate the elk reintroduction. The main state expense will be incurred in trucking the elk to Wisconsin.

“We did not spend much state money on this project,” Wallenfang said. “The crew has been staying for free in state park cabins and eating group meals. We rented some vehicles there because that was cheaper than taking all state-owned vehicles to Kentucky.”

The trapping operation was very mobile, Wallenfang said. Crew members scouted locations, then set up the trap corral panels where they found elk. The traps were baited with baled alfalfa, grains, and various “buck jam” liquids (apple, molasses, and acorn) attractive to elk. Warm weather, a lack of snow, and a good acorn crop made finding and trapping elk a challenge, Wallenfang said. The elk were not under winter stress at all.

“The Kentucky elk are feeding on grasses and other natural forage all winter long. It’s been quite warm there, and so the elk are not as easy to bait as they would be if it were cold and snowy,” he said.

On the last night of trapping, more than 50 elk were around the trap, but none entered the chute leading into the catch pen.

Kentucky imported more than 1,500 elk from Kansas over several years starting in 1997. The Kentucky herd has grown to more than 15,000 animals. The elk trapped this winter were taken from areas with numerous complaints about nuisance elk, according to the Kentucky DFWR.

Wisconsin launched an experimental elk reintroduction program in 1995, when 25 elk were imported from Michigan and released near Clam Lake. That herd now numbers about 160 animals. Kentucky has more elk because it started with more, it has milder winters, and the state lacks bears and wolves – the main predators on elk calves.

“We’ve seen negative herd growth here only twice – last year and in 2001-02. Both of those declines were winter-related,” Wallenfang said.

The Jackson County elk range covers approximately 400 square miles, located east of Black River Falls. Most of this land lies within the Black River State Forest. Upon their arrival in Wisconsin, the elk will be held in a 7-acre pen to let them get acclimated to their new surroundings and complete their quarantine period. This should reduce the likelihood of elk traveling great distances once they are released.

If all goes well, the elk captured this winter will be moved to Wisconsin sometime in March. The timeline for the move is entirely dependent on the outcome of the health testing in Kentucky, Ryan said. If culturing is necessary, the animals will remain in Kentucky for an additional eight weeks before they are brought to Wisconsin. Before they are released in Wisconsin, the elk will be tested once more for tuberculosis.

“During the quarantine, we are providing animal caretaking for the duration to assure they are well fed and watered,” Ryan said. “We will maintain daily observations on their behavior and condition, and have a wildlife veterinarian providing oversight on animal care and treatment. If any animal health concerns should arise during quarantine, we will address them, as well as perform necropsies on any mortalities should they occur during quarantine.”

The transfer will not be accompanied by the fanfare some may recall from the 1995 transfer and release of elk to Clam Lake, when many guests and media were present and Gov. Tommy Thompson opened the truck doors.

“This will be a low-key event, Wallenfang said. “We’re doing everything we can to reduce stress on the animals.”

The current elk plan calls for a long-term goal of 1,400 elk in the Clam Lake herd and 390 elk in Jackson County. All elk captured this year will be released in Jackson County. Those captured in 2016 will be released in the Clam Lake area. Elk captured in the remaining years of the agreement will be divided between the two areas.

“Hunting is not the primary motivation behind the restoration of elk in Wisconsin,” Wallenfang said. “But an elk hunt is certainly in the long-term forecast. A viable elk herd should be good for the state’s economy, regardless of whether they are hunted.”

According to the Cable Chamber of Commerce, Wisconsin’s elk herd currently generates more than $200,000 of revenue per year in the Clam Lake area. Larger elk herds in other states generate more than $1 million to local economies from wildlife viewing alone. A future elk-hunting season would generate additional funds for elk management and add revenue to local economies in Wisconsin.

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