Wisconsin Wapiti by: Mike Mitten
Hoping I had made the right decision, I left the security of dense cover and slowly crept forward into the meadow. It felt so strange to kneel down in lush green grass as opposed to the dry sage of a typical western elk hunt. Everything about this trip was different. Whoever heard of hunting elk in the spring? I instinctively decreased my profile as a huge wapiti with a rack of fresh velvet emerged from the fern laced tag alder thicket. In that instant my first urge was to reach for my bow. But in the next millisecond, my attention shifted to the video camera and attached tri-pod in front of me. This was a hunt of sorts like no other. Instead of bows and arrows, we were hunting with still-cameras, camcorders, and our bare hands!
In June of 2009, I was invited by my friend and co-publisher Matt Smith to join him and other Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) members to assist the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the elk restoration project at Clam Lake. We would be hunting elk! Well… at least their newborn calves.
I jumped at the opportunity. This excursion would allow me first hand experience seeing where the money gathered from hunting licenses and donations to various conservation efforts is going and how it is being utilized. I have a deep passion for elk, so interacting with a herd not far from my family’s recreational property in Wisconsin would be an exceptional treat.
The Clam Lake elk herd lives free range in the Chequamegan National Forest and neighboring private lands of Ashland County. The herd was introduced in 1995 when 25 animals were captured from Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, quarantined for a few months to test and monitor health status before being released, thus ending a 110 year absence of wild elk from the woodlands of Wisconsin. They have since grown to over 160 animals and are intensely managed and studied by associates of the University of Wisconsin (Stevens Point), Wisconsin DNR, and RMEF. Currently, the project reins have been handed over to Laine Stowell and Matt McKay of the Wisconsin DNR, who, with help from Beth Blicharz, make over 8000 telemetry locations and approximately 10,000 mortality checks annually on over 90 elk fitted with telemetry collars.
In the spring, known collared elk are monitored daily until a cow breaks from the rest of the herd. She is then checked twice per day to maintain her position electronically. During her isolation, if she stays in one location for more than 48 hours an assumption is made that she gave birth. Care is taken to make a visual on her, and her undisturbed location is marked by one researcher. He then backs out and regroups with the rest of the volunteers, many from the RMEF. A group of 12 to 15 volunteers form a close wall with each of us spaced 8 to 10 feet apart and a sweep of the area is started to find the calf.
The initial sweep that I was a part of found the calf on our first attempt. As we marched slowly through the thick cover and downed timber, the newborn instinctively held tight until the last possible second. It leaped up to run parallel to our wall of searchers where it was promptly grabbed by Laine Stowell who was at the end of our line. Laine immediately slipped a black elastic band over the calf’s eyes so it couldn’t see, and he began to stroke and pet its neck and shoulders. The darkness and simulation of mothering caresses helped relax the calf. It was weighed, fitted with a transmitter collar and battery, and a hair sample was collected for DNA testing. The collars cost approximately $300 each and were paid for directly from RMEF donations. The collars are sewn in such a way to expand as the elk’s neck grows larger. Male calves have a special section of cloth incorporated in them so that as the bull’s neck reaches rutting size at age two or three it will break and the collar will fall off. Matt Smith took some still photos while I recorded video footage of the event.
From the time of capture to the subsequent release, only five minutes had elapsed. We all backed out to allow the mother, who was circling our location, to quickly return. None of us were wearing any perfume or mosquito repellent. We tried to minimize foreign odor or sweet smells that could attract predators to the calf’s location.
Matt McKay informed us that the elk’s mother will usually stay in the area and circle us, much the same as a deer would. She will typically exhibit a similar response if a bear captures her young calf; however, if wolves prey on her calf, the mothers tend to completely leave the area and not return. I was fascinated to learn of this trait, since we all marched in like a “pack of wolves,” yet the mother elk did not leave, holding a higher concern for the calf than her own safety.
We checked on this calf electronically the following day, and the signal came in strong, indicating the calf had moved away from the capture location and was doing well. I can’t say the same for a different calf that was collard a few days prior. Its transmitter was relaying a mortality signal that is triggered following more than 4 hours of inactivity. We went in to search for this calf’s remains and found them partially consumed and stuffed under a log. The different sized bear scat in the area indicated a sow and at least one juvenile cub had made the kill. This was also part of nature’s way. We can’t love the game species and hate the predators that rely on them.
As of my last report from the guys, out of the 20 calves that were collard in 2009, 13 were still alive. Inquiring about the mortality, I was told that five out of the seven deaths were due to predation by bears. There are wolves in the area, but bears are the number one reason for calf mortality. Wolves may kill more elk overall, because they are not limited to just springtime predation and can utilize adult animals in late winter as well.
Beth Blicharz was relatively new to the group and said she much prefers working for the elk restoration project than her previous work which involved tracking the activities of collard black bears. She said, “Bears travel so far. One day we would confirm the location of a particular lone boar using a three way point grid taken from the telemetry collar, and the next morning it could be twenty miles away. The elk are more social animals and tend to stay together in small bands generally within the National Forest boundaries.”
I learned that a portion of the elk’s range overlaps with private property. Most of the land owners enjoy seeing the elk; however, there are a few that were concerned that the elk will feed extensively on small food plots that they intended to establish for deer hunting. If success is to be realized, it’s important to understand public opinion and the reasons for support or dismay in any wildlife restoration effort.
This Wisconsin area is a great place to observe the bugling and ritualistic rut of elk in September. Although there is no hunting season established at the time of writing this article, I was told that provisions are being made for a small number of bull tags to be issued in the future. Laine said that the Wisconsin herd has not grown as fast as other reintroduction programs like Kentucky and Pennsylvania, which already have established hunting seasons. Wisconsin’s elk may be living in a cooler climate with higher calf mortality due to cold wet spring weather, and predation by wolves as well as bear can be problematic. Due to the increased incidence of chronic wasting diseases in Wisconsin’s deer heard, the stocking of additional breeding age cows was not allowed as has been acceptable in the other states. Laine also said that he hopes the population will increase to over 200 animals in the near future, and that a recommendation of increased bear harvest permits be considered in the areas shared by the elk.
Many sportsmen in the state are excited to see that their money and donations are going toward the establishment of a local elk herd; however there are some that feel that the small number of hunting permits that may be allocated are not worth the effort, and that they would rather see the money go to support western herds where there is a significantly better chance of obtaining a tag. The truth is, only a small portion ($40,000) of the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by the Wisconsin chapters of RMEF goes toward the Wisconsin elk herd. Any and all support is greatly appreciated by the researchers involved.
At the end of the trip we got a chance to break away on our own and Matt Smith and I caught four muskies on a nearby lake. We also discovered a pocket of three bull elk, which I immediately made a stalk on. Two off them were very wide and developing nicely for early June. Unfortunately they got back into the timber before I could get much video footage of them. Luckily the smallest of the three bulls came back out into the open and walked toward me. I remained motionless while focusing the video camera. The bull looked right through me at less than 100 yards as I was wearing my Sitka 90% jacket in the Mothwing Mountain Mimicry pattern. Matt took pictures of me in full view of the young bull from 400 yards away.
We don’t only hunt elk in the fall. This springtime hunt was unique for me and gave me a better idea of all the work involved in the conservation efforts. During this week in June, it was fun to be briefly one with Wisconsin Wapiti!