Wisconsin’s Elk are Marching through Winter
CLAM LAKE, Wisconsin – Few things move easily through snow 30 inches deep, but cow elk No. 631 handled those depths far better than I had earlier the same day.
And she wasn’t even wearing snowshoes. My job grew especially hard soon after I unstrapped my 56-inch wooden snowshoes in the forest southeast of Tom Heberlein’s shack.
I wouldn’t have removed the snowshoes, but I had to climb one of Heberlein’s ladder stands to retrieve a cushion left behind during November’s deer season.
I was halfway up the ladder when my wife, Penny, said, “I think this will hold me.” She then sat and bounced lightly atop a bent birch to check its strength. Just as I reached the stand’s platform, I heard a loud crack and a shriek below. The birch hadn’t held. I saw Penny on her back 10 yards away, her snowshoes jutting skyward with their wooden tails buried to the hilt.
She struggled futilely like an overturned turtle.
After taking videos and photos of Penny’s predicament for my amusement, I descended the ladder, stepped into the deep white, and post-holed 20 steps to her side. I extended a hand and pulled her upright. We then resumed our chores and snowshoed back to the shack.
Ninety minutes later we were 20 miles to the southwest, rolling down a lake’s access road near Clam Lake to go ice-fishing for crappies. That’s where we spotted the cow elk among the forest’s spruce and maples, high-stepping through snow with strength and grace. The elk didn’t pause until I stopped our truck and backed up for a better look.
We’ve visited this region scores of times since the Department of Natural Resources first released elk here in 1995, but elk 631 was our first daytime sighting of a herd member. The Clam Lake herd stands at about 280 elk this winter after being seeded with 25 relocated Michigan elk a quarter-century before. The herd received further elk infusions from Kentucky since 2017, but most of its members were locally birthed.
Most elk don’t wear the DNR’s numbered collars. Kevin Wallenfang, Wisconsin’s chief elk manager, said 112 animals in the Clam Lake herd currently carry GPS collars, but that percentage keeps shrinking as the herd grows. For now, about 60% of the cows and 30% of the bulls wear collars.
The collars transmit the elk’s GPS coordinates daily so biologists can monitor their travels and preferred hangouts. The collars also help researchers build profiles on the individual animals, providing insights into their health, longevity, productivity and habitat preferences.
Follow along, kids, as we profile elk 631, which we spotted Feb. 1:
-- The DNR first captured and collared this cow in May 2010 when it was a newborn calf, which means it will be 10 this spring.
-- Its mother, No. 53 on the DNR’s elk roster, was a calf birthed in 1998 by an original Michigan transplant.
-- The Michigan grandmother has since died, but elk 53 will be 22 this spring, and is still producing calves in the forest between Clam Lake and Day Lake to the northwest.
-- On Feb. 27, 2011, elk 631 was trapped again near Clam Lake and moved southeasterly about 10 miles with 11 other elk to the Moose Lake “dispersal” site to help the herd expand its size and range.
-- Sometime later elk 631 returned to its birth area west of Clam Lake, and appears regularly with a couple of other cows the DNR dubbed the “Ghost Creek Group.”
-- Elk 631 was trapped a third time in 2018 and fitted with its current GPS collar.
The Clam Lake herd isn’t Wisconsin’s only wild elk herd, of course. The DNR also released 23 elk in 2015 near Black River Falls, and added 50 more in 2016. Those Jackson County releases consisted of 16 bulls and 42 cows from Kentucky, and 15 calves born while the adults were in quarantine pens in Wisconsin. The DNR expects the Black River herd to reach 100 elk this year.
Wallenfang said Wisconsin’s two elk herds generate endless interest from locals, tourists and “citizen scientists” participating in the DNR’s “Snapshot Wisconsin” project. Part of that project involves a study in which volunteers place and monitor trail cameras in specific sites on a grid to help researchers create a population-modeling system.
The DNR is also crafting a new elk-management plan that might recommend the agency do an economic analysis of the two herds’ tourism impacts, which includes hunting. The Clam Lake herd will provide its third season this fall, and hunters can start applying March 1 for a bull tag. Once again, the quota will be split evenly with the state’s Chippewa tribes. The quota was 10 the past two years, but the DNR and Natural Resources Board might consider an increase when reviewing the quota this spring.
Wallenfang said the DNR hopes the earlier application date boosts interest in the limited hunt. The application period opened May 1 for the first two elk seasons, generating over 38,000 applicants in 2018 and over 23,000 applicants in 2019. Each applicant pays $10 to enter the random drawing, which sends $7 to the DNR’s elk program.
Hunters filled all 10 bull tags during the 2019 season. Three other elk from the Clam Lake herd were shot illegally, including two mistaken for deer during November’s gun season. Of the other 18 confirmed deaths in that herd last year, three elk were killed in vehicle collisions, nine were killed by wolves, and six couldn’t be determined.
Wallenfang said the DNR confirmed only one death in the Black River elk herd in 2019, but couldn't determine its cause. In 2018, 11 elk in that herd died, including four in vehicle collisions. No deaths there the past two years were linked to wolves or other predators.
Poaching hasn’t proven to be the problem some pessimists predicted. Given the public’s affection and interest in elk, and the animal’s tremendous size, even dullards seem to realize the extreme difficulty of shooting an elk, loading it into a pickup, and escaping as passers-by or neighbors look away.
Well, at least that’s a thought that raced through my head Feb. 1 as I watched elk 631 retreat back into the forest. Elk aren’t made for anyone seeking quick, easy, discreet work, legal or otherwise, especially in winter.
A cow elk wades through deep snow in Wisconsin's Nicolet-Chequamegon National Forest in eastern Bayfield County. — Patrick Durkin photo