Outdoor Notebook: Looking at the health of the state’s elk population
How would one describe the weather in northern Wisconsin during the fall? One day the sun is shining and it is a bit too warm to fish with a sweatshirt on, and the next day it’s a challenge to get enough clothing on. Perhaps the best answer is, if you do not like the weather today, just hang around a bit because it will change soon.
Sixteen years ago, 25 elk were reintroduced in Northwestern Wisconsin. These elk were brought to Wisconsin from the state of Michigan. This past spring, the elk herd numbered about 176 animals. This number reflected the elk population following the calving season.
This past spring, 22 calves were caught and radio collard. The DNR assistant elk biologist, Matt McKay, said that as many as 35 calves were born. Calves are normally born during late May or early June. Of the 22 calves that were born this past spring, 59 percent had died by the end of September. Last year, the herd showed a 16 percent increase, however the previous year did not show an increase in elk numbers. The losses in elk are primarily due to predators. This year, four calves were killed by wolves, and three were killed by bears.
According to McKay, the calves are vulnerable to bears for the first eight weeks of their life. After that period of time, the calves are able to keep up with their mothers. Over the years, predators and vehicles have been the biggest cause of deaths for Wisconsin’s elk herd. Of the 173 known dead elk over the years, 62 were killed by wolves, 27 by vehicles, 25 by bears and 11 deaths were the result of undetermined causes. Seven deaths were the result of parasites, seven from complications at birth, six from drowning, three from natural accidents and two from dogs. Believe it or not, three were killed by illegal hunting. Hunters claimed that they mistakenly shot the elk thinking they were shooting at a deer.
The goal is to eventually have 1,400 elk in the vicinity of Clam Lake. Once the herd reaches 200 animals, there will be a limited hunting season on bulls. A lottery drawing will be held for bull permits.
This past winter, the DNR moved 12 elk (four yearling bulls, four yearling cows, two one-year old cows and two three-year old cows) southeast of Moose Lake. Those elk have stayed near where they were released, and it is possible that five to seven calves will be born to this group in the spring.
The DNR is working in cooperation with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to improve the habitat for the elk. One of their projects is setting up timber sales for clear-cuts to regenerate aspen groves. Northern Wisconsin needs more aspen regeneration for deer as well as grouse and elk.
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Early reports coming in from whitetail bow hunters are mixed. Generally speaking, bow hunters are seeing more deer than they saw last fall. However, there are still a number of bow hunters who haven’t seen a deer yet. The rut is starting, which normally puts bucks on the run looking for does.
Almost all the archery hunters who we have talked with have indicated that they are seeing more bears in the area than deer. As unusual as it sounds, this fall we have heard that several bear hunters have been injured by bears trying to get away from the bear hunters. One area bear hunter, who runs a well-trained pack of hounds, is walking with a noticeable limp. It seems that the bear was wounded by a young hunter after it climbed a tree. The hunter who was injured was in the path of the bear, while the animal was trying to get away from the dogs.
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The employment of a “Deer Czar” has brought about many questions from deer hunters as well as DNR biologists. That action was brought about by a campaign promise made by Governor Walker. For my two bits worth, I am going to withhold judgment, sit back and watch and then look for the resulting report. The title of “Dr. Deer” is interesting for a person who takes on this challenge.
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Recently I had a unique experience. On a Monday morning I shared the boat with Rob Bowman and Scott Gunderson. Rob is a long-time friend, and is the Chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. Scott Gunderson, who occupied the third seat in the boat, is the Deputy Natural Resources Secretary. Both Rob and “Gundy” are accomplished anglers who get in a boat whenever the opportunity to do so presents itself.
Two days later, DNR Secretary Kathy Stepp, and Kurt Thiede joined me in the boat. Kurt was the liaison between the DNR and the Conservation Congress, and is now in charge of the Lands Program with the DNR.
I gained a new respect for these individuals and their efforts to communicate the importance of natural resources to the State of Wisconsin. Following the opportunity to discuss our natural resources, it is obvious that managing these resources is a complex endeavor.
Longtime Northwoods outdoors personality Roger Sabota writes a bi-monthly column appearing in the Star Journal.