Jackson County, Wis. — The long-awaited release of 23 elk into Wisconsin’s Central Forest Region of Jackson County may be just around the corner. Kevin Wallenfang, the DNR’s deer and elk ecologist, anticipates the new herd will be out of the holding pen and on its own by Sept 1.
First estimates were that the elk would be released in June, prior to the adult cows giving birth to calves, but the animals were still in the corral as of the end of July. Wallenfang said the release date is dependent on a decision by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.
“All animals are being cared for and monitored daily,” Wallenfang said. “The agency is still awaiting some final health-testing results before the animals are turned loose.”
Health concerns became a priority when five animals died from babesiosis – a tick-related disease – soon after arrival from Kentucky. A sixth elk was lost when it had to be euthanized, and a seventh appeared to have succumbed to birthing complications and a digestive disorder. The population has since climbed back to 23 with the birth of four calves occurring this spring in the 7-acre holding pen.
Other complications put the release process behind schedule, including a delay in the birth of the fourth calf, which came several weeks after the first three.
“There was uncertainty as to when they became pregnant,” said Lou George, regional director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “How pregnant were they when they got here?” he asks.
George said the Department of Agriculture plays a primary role in determining when the animals will be released.
“They determine in large part when it’s OK to release them,” he said. “They have their finger on the trigger for that.”
Wallenfang dispelled concerns about the rutting season beginning before the elk are released from the corral.
“We fully anticipate that the elk will be released prior to the start of rutting activity, so we have no concerns,” he said.
The 2012 elk plan revision calls for bringing in about 150 elk from Kentucky over a 5-year period. Half of that number will help establish the new herd in the Black River State Forest in Jackson County; the rest will augment the Clam Lake herd, estimated at the end of 2014 at about 160 animals.
The order in which the total number of elk will be released is part of an ongoing discussion, George said. While a final decision has not been made, he predicts the first 75 probably will go to the Jackson County location.
“The focus is on the Black River Forest right now,” George said.
The reason, he suggests, has much to do with cost.
“The holding pen turned out to be more expensive than we anticipated, so it makes sense to salvage what we can in Jackson County and use it in the Clam Lake area.”
RMEF is among those who have made major financial contributions to the relocation effort.
The effort to bring elk to the Black River State Forest came about in December 2001 when the Natural Resources Board approved the plan. The Black River Elk Range covers 320 square miles in the Central Forest Region of eastern Jackson County. The long-term population goal calls for 390 elk in the BRER.
Wisconsin’s elk herd was first established with the release of 25 elk in the Clam Lake area in 1995. The herd has grown, on average, 13 percent annually. While the bulk of the herd remains in the Clam Lake area, a second, smaller herd recently was established in the Flambeau River State Forest near Loretta and Draper.
“Overall health testing and quarantine have gone very well,” Wallenfang said. All the Jackson County animals have been fitted with GPS radio collars. “That will allow us to track their movements, survival, and gather other information daily.
“We are anxious and excited about their release,” he said. “And, we appreciate all of the local support and interest in the project and their patience as we move closer to release. We also appreciate how the public has avoided the area, which has been important in reducing animal stress.
“As a result, the elk that will be released are healthy and adapting to their new surroundings. We anticipate releasing them soon and hope folks will enjoy hearing the bugling of wild elk in Jackson County this fall,” he said.
Trapping efforts began in Kentucky in midwinter. A total of 28 elk were caught, but two of those animals died during health testing while in Kentucky. A total of 26 elk came to Wisconsin on March 26.
The four calves born this spring all appear to be in great condition, Wallenfang said.