The reintroduction of elk to the state of Wisconsin is an amazing feat of wildlife management.
In the 1800s and early 1900s the state, which once had elk in 50 of the 72 counties, lost all it’s elk, like much of the country, due to market hunting for meat and antlers.
But Wisconsin now has two healthy, growing herds, one in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Clam Lake and one in the Black River State Forest in Jackson County.
The Clam Lake herd, which began with 25 elk delivered from Michigan in 1995, has an estimated population of 260 elk. The much younger Black River Falls herd, which began with 73 elk delivered from Kentucky in 2015 and 2016, is estimated to be about 80 elk.
What’s equally impressive, however, as the early success of the reestablishment of elk in Wisconsin, is the logistics involved in bringing them here.
Patrick Beringer, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) area wildlife supervisor out of Park Falls, has been involved, hands-on, with Wisconsin’s elk project since the beginning, and at a recent appearance at the Camp Jorn YMCA, as part of the North Lakeland Discovery Center’s Nibbles and Knowledge speakers series, he offered an insiders perspective on the complicated process of translocating elk.
In particular, he spoke about bringing elk to Wisconsin from Kentucky, which took place from 2015-2017, and then again in 2019.
Some of the first hurdles for the DNR, which inherited the elk project from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, were to explain to people why Wisconsin needed more elk and why they were going to Kentucky for them.
“We had to make sure our source population of elk were from a state that was certified free from CWD (chronic wasting disease) and all the western states for the most part had CWD, so they were kind of out of he question,” Beringer said.
Therefore, Kentucky elk were chosen. They were CWD free and they had strong western blood. Kentucky’s herd of 10,000 elk, which thrives upon the vast open grasslands on top of abandoned coal mines, began with 1,200 elk from six western states.
Those kinds of genes, it was reasoned, would be a strong foundation for the Black River herd, which according to Beringer, was established so the state did not have all its eggs in one basket in the Clam Lake elk herd.
“We thought that by starting another population in Jackson County, which had a lot of local support for it, that we would have another herd to be able to have as a back-up per se,” Beringer said.
The addition of Kentucky elk would also help the growth of the Clam Lake herd.
“We’re going to really boost the genetic capacity of that herd,” Beringer said.
‘It was just not that easy’
The original agreement between the two states was to transport 150 elk from Kentucky; 75 were to go to the Black River State Forest and 75 to the Clam Lake herd.
But before that could happen there were months of board meetings, public hearings, rules changes, committee approvals, fund raising, grant writing, and staff training.
“It was a huge, huge project,” Beringer said.
Then, once all the formalities were taken care of, the project got even bigger.
Beringer was part of a team that would spend six week intervals in Kentucky during 2015, 2016, and 2017, trapping elk in corrals.
With these traps, an elk would walk into a baited corral across a trip wire that would trigger a swing door to shut behind it. The trap would then also trigger a camera to take a picture of the elk and send a signal to the team that an animal had been captured. The team when then drive to the trap to retrieve the elk and it take it to a holding facility.
But it was tough trapping. In addition to non-cooperating landowners, the team had to compete with the natural forage.
“It was just not that easy,” Beringer said. “If there was good acorn crops the elk wouldn’t want to go in there.”
Racing back and forth between the various traps and the holding facility on treacherous mountain roads with cattle trailers only added to the team’s challenges.
“It was dangerous,” Beringer said.
But despite the difficulties, the morale of the team, which consisted of both Wisconsin DNR and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel, couldn’t have been better.
The Wisconsin crew moved right in with the Kentucky team and showed some Dairy State charm.
“We poured on the Wisconsin hospitality and brought more cheese than they ever saw before in their lives,” Beringer said.
The positivity surrounding the team paid off as, slowly but surely, they trapped some elk.
“Just great, great working relationship with the state of Kentucky,” Beringer said. “We just got along great with them, and because of that they worked extra hard and helped and we got the animals that we wanted.”
In 2015, 26 elk were captured in Kentucky and 23 were released in the Black River State Forest in Wisconsin. In 2016, 39 were captured, and due to calves, 50 were released.
Those 73 elk were the foundation of the Black River herd.
The next year, 28 elk were captured in Kentucky and 31 were released south of Clam Lake near the town of Winter in the Flambeau River State Forest (FRSF), which is an extension of the Clam Lake range.
But in 2018, due to other obligations, Kentucky was not able to participate and therefore no trapping or transplanting was done.
Much to everyones delight, they resumed in 2019, but with a more efficient method than trapping.
“They decided to use a helicopter,” Beringer said.
With this method, a helicopter would fly low over a herd and then an elk would be shot by a weighted net and get tangled up. Then two “muggers” would take over.
“These guys would jump out of the helicopter and they would run over and jump on top of the elk and get it hog tied. The helicopter would come back and they would hook it up onto a pulley system, a rope system, and haul it over to us,” Beringer explained. “These guys were incredible.”
This year, thanks to productive capturing in Kentucky, another 48 elk were released in Wisconsin’s FRSF.
Whether by corral trap or helicopter netting, once the elk were captured they had to be immediately processed. That entailed an extensive series of tagging, medical examinations, lab work, and blood testing.
“We wanted to make sure that we followed everything possible to make sure that these animals were going to be safe, disease free animals that were going to be let go in the environment,” Beringer said.
However, each elk had to be processed individually, and that required team members sorting and moving up to 900 pound animals through a system of narrow chutes.
To protect themselves while guiding the huge animals through the processing facility, Beringer said he and the team used boards of wood.
“They can stand up on their hind legs and throw punches with the best of them and you make sure you’ve got that board there to protect yourself,” he said.
Once properly marked and examined, the elk had to stay quarantined for a total of 120 days after capture.
The holding facilities in both Kentucky and Wisconsin were extremely secure. They were double fenced with electric fencing and monitored 24/7.
Transportation from Kentucky was done by truck and cattle trailer.
After the quarantine the elk were re-processed before being released to the wild.
“This is the best day of the year,” Beringer said of release day.
But just because the elk were released didn’t mean the team lost track of them.
By use of GPS collars and a system of trail cameras the elk have continued to be monitored and tracked and biologists continue to learn how the elk are adapting to their new home.
“We use these GPS locations to determine the best habitat sites,” Beringer said.
And both the FRSF area and the Black River State Forest have proved to be full of great habitat for the Kentucky elk.
Both herds are growing, as evidence of breeding and calf birth have been observed.
“We’re going to have a lot of elk in the state,” Beringer said. “We’re hoping that, and it’s coming to life.”
The reintroduction of elk to Wisconsin was a monumental task that took a team with a lot of guts and grit to get it done.
Thanks to their efforts, these majestic animals once again roam the state, giving new generations of residents the opportunity to experience the thrill of encountering them.
“More and more people now days coming up to the Clam Lake area and the Flambeau River State Forest Area just to come out and listen or call. See if they can get elk to bugle back,” Beringer said. “And more and more often they’re becoming successful at it.”
Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]