Dec 10, 2018

Return of the Elk

A history of Wisconsin’s elk population heading into the state’s first-ever managed hunt

By Charlie Frisk

This fall, Wisconsin will have its first managed elk hunt ever.

The state Department of Natural Resources held a lottery earlier this allowing four bull permits for the fall 2018 season, with a total of 38,400 potential elk hunters entered into the lottery.

When Europeans first arrived in this area, bison, elk, moose and woodland caribou were all occupants of what would eventually become known as Wisconsin. Bison and caribou are unlikely to ever return as wild residents, and moose exist only as a very small remnant population. But due to the efforts of the DNR and several other cooperating organizations, the state has witnessed a return of elk.

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation initiated a feasibility study for elk reintroduction in the state back in the late 1980s and have been the largest financial contributor to the effort, donating more than $8.5 million during the past 25 years.

An elk history

Elk were once found in at least 50 of 72 Wisconsin counties. Bone and written records indicate they were common on the prairies and oak openings of southern Wisconsin. However, they were eliminated by unregulated hunting for personal use and market hunting, as well as loss of habitat. There was a market value for their meat, hides, antlers and even their teeth. The last wild elk in Wisconsin was killed in the late 1800s.

Wisconsin Conservation Commission – the predecessor of today’s DNR – made an attempt to reintroduce elk that lasted from 1913 into the 1940s. In 1913 the Conservation Commission brought in a train car load with elk from the herd in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Only two elk from that first load survived. A second carload of 32 elk was shipped in 1917.

There didn’t seem to be any real plan as to what should become of those elk. They were placed in a 300-acre pen near Trout Lake in Vilas County. Pneumonia killed half of the group that first winter.

The surviving elk rapidly overgrazed their pen, and by 1928 the herd had grown to only 19 bulls, 17 cows and 9 calves. Sustaining the herd was deemed too costly by the Conservation Commission and some of the animals were given to parks and zoos or private individuals.

In 1932 the remaining 15 or so elk were set free. Those elk were said to have been killed by poachers or shot when they were mistaken for deer.

Newspapers at the time reported the elk to be a bit of nuisance, eating haystacks and garden produce, running through barbed wire fences, and even challenging humans during the rut. Art Oehmcke, a retired DNR district director who was a supervisor in Woodruff, remembered the phone call he received from a distressed woman that a bull elk had her husband cornered in a barn. Oehmcke went to the farm with a shotgun, fired two shots in the air, and the bull ran off.

One of the last elk to be shot – a 600-pound bull – was taken south of Sayner during the 1943 deer season. When contacted, Oehmcke sent two men out with a Caterpillar tractor to drag the animal out of the woods. They loaded it onto a truck, took it to the Woodruff ranger station, and hung it in a tree.

“In those days we’d sell poached deer by the pound to anyone who wanted the meat,” Oehmcke said. “When two Illinois men saw the elk, they wanted to buy it and we sold it to them.” With ropes and pulleys the men managed to lay the elk on their car roof, which promptly collapsed. Oehmcke later received a newspaper clipping from a Harvard, Ill. newspaper in which the two local men claimed they were charged by the bull elk in northern Wisconsin and had to shoot it to save their lives.

Modern history

The reintroduction which occurred in 1995 involved much more planning, preparation and effort at building public support.

The first site identified as having potential for elk reintroduction was the Bayfield Peninsula, however, there was some objection from area farmers, snowmobilers and deer hunters. State officials finally settled upon a remote area of the Chequamegon National Forest near Clam Lake that offered suitable habitat for elk and little conflict with neighboring farms.

Another benefit of the Clam Lake area was the presence of a U.S. Navy communications system called Project ELF, short for extreme low frequency. The Navy cleared an X-shaped swath 100 feet wide and 37 miles long to deploy two huge antennas used to send signals to submarines. The cleared area provides grazing for the elk. While the ELF project is no longer active, the DNR and U.S. Forest Service – with funding provided by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation – mows the area on an annual basis to maintain the grazing.

The first Clam Lake stocking included 25 elk which were relocated from Michigan, where they were trapped, tested for disease, penned and quarantined in Michigan for 90 days. On May 3, 1995 the elk were transported to Wisconsin and released into a two-acre acclimation pen to adjust to their new surroundings for two weeks.

Upon their release, most of the elk moved into suitable habitat within 10 miles of the release area, but a small number of individual elk took off on long distance jaunts. Some of those elk were live trapped and returned to the release area.

In 2017, in an effort to increase genetic diversity of the Clam Lake herd, 31 elk from Kentucky were released into the Flambeau River State Forest adjacent to the Clam Lake population, after receiving a clean bill of health following a required 120-day quarantine and health testing period. Today the Clam Lake herd numbers over 200 elk.

Contemporary management

This current herd will be open to Wisconsin’s first managed elk hunt.

“Our elk have an abundance of resources, (food, water, cover) and as a result do not travel as much as their western cousins. This in turn has concentrated elk, which tends to favor large predators in making it easier to locate them,” said Kevin Wallenfang, the big game ecologist for the Wisconsin DNR.

“We have helped these elk occupy more of the available habitat through a process we call ‘assisted dispersal.’ We capture elk, acclimate them in a pen to a new area, and then release them.”

A favorite habitat for elk is recently clear-cut forests. The U.S.F.S. has many areas on national forest lands becoming mature enough to be logged, and the most recent stocking of elk in the Flambeau River State Forest is adjacent to areas where industrial forest land is abundant. This will help spread the elk over a much greater range and should reduce predation. These efforts appear to already have an impact. There has not been a documented predator kill on elk in the state since September 2017.

The DNR has established a second elk herd in Jackson County, where there’s more than 100,000 acres of county forest land as well as large areas of suitable habitat on private land. A collaborative effort is underway to increase grassland acreage in Jackson County as well improve elk habitat in other ways.

This elk reintroduction began in 2015 with 23 elk from Kentucky, and then introduced an additional 50 elk in 2016. The long-term goal is to eventually have 400 elk in the Jackson County herd and 1,400 elk in the Clam Lake herd.

One lucky guy

The winner of one of the four lottery permits is Dan Vandertei, a dairy farmer and experienced elk hunter from Brussels in Door County. Vandertei is preparing for what will likely be his one and only chance to hunt elk in the state.

Wisconsin could not have been more fortunate than to have Dan as a spokesperson for its first elk hunt. Dan is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful and ethical people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. In talking to him, I feel he’s convinced he has an obligation to do everything right to properly honor this first elk hunt.

Dan first heard about the elk lottery from his daughter, Karlee, who said she was entering. Permits for the lottery were $10, and the money generated will serve the good cause of managing the Wisconsin elk herd.

Dan has been hunting elk in Colorado for the past five years along with a group of acquaintances that have been hunting there for 30 years. This fall he will be hunting both in Colorado and Wisconsin, and Karlee will join him for her first Colorado elk hunt.

How will this coming Wisconsin elk hunt be different from his Colorado experience? Since Dan has already gone to the Clam Lake area four times to scout and prepare for his hunt, he’s well qualified to compare the two.

“The biggest thing is altitude,” Vandertei said. “In Colorado, where we hunt in the Root National Forest, we start at 8,000 feet and hunt up to 9,500 feet. Until you acclimate to the altitude, every step requires an effort.”

In the Clam Lake area, he explained, it is little effort to walk for miles. Colorado also has much more open country, offering the potential for long range shooting. The Clam Lake area is much more densely forested.

Dan makes friends easily. On his recent trips to the Clam Lake area he has met many people eager to help him with the inaugural Wisconsin elk hunt. He will be joined by a photographer, a retired DNR warden, foresters and bear hunters who are helping him get to know the area. Others have offered to help him haul his elk out to the road if he gets one.

“I really prefer to hunt alone, but with this hunt being such a rare occasion, I have a hard time saying ‘no’ to more participants on my hunt,” Dan said.

The Wisconsin elk hunting season began Oct. 13. The first session extends to Nov. 11, the is closed during the gun deer season. The elk hunt reopens from Dec. 13-21.

Dan doesn’t feel it will be terribly difficult to harvest a legal bull in this first season. If he does get a bull he will be contributing in many ways to management of the herd including health testing, hunter behavior and scientific research on Wisconsin’s elk herd. The DNR provided him with a cooler and equipment to collect organ samples, blood and measurements that will assist in monitoring the health of Wisconsin’s elk herd.  Additional tissue samples and measurements will be provided at registration, including samples for CWD and other disease testing.