Sunday, June 25, 2006

More wolves helped stall growth of elk herd in northern Wisconsin

ROBERT IMRIE -- Associated Press

WAUSAU, Wis. - Growth of the new elk herd that was started in northern Wisconsin about a decade ago has stalled, in part because wolves are killing more calves and young bulls, and car crashes are killing cows, a state wildlife biologist says. The latest count after the birth of at least 25 calves this spring puts the herd at 120 elk - the same as two years ago, said Laine Stowell of the state Department of Natural Resources The new trend follows years of steady growth - from 15 percent to 25 percent - that had already generated rules for a limited hunt of bulls amid predictions the herd would swell to 500 of the majestic animals by 2007 or 2008.

"Things are not on track for that to happen," Stowell said. "We are observing higher levels of mortality in the herd."

The verdict is still out on whether the reintroduction of the elk in the Clam Lake area can succeed at levels once envisioned, he said. Because of the new challenges, efforts have started to bring in more elk.

"I think some folks prematurely said it was a success. But it is not a success until the herd is a self-sustaining population and I submit that we are probably not yet at that stage," Stowell said. "Whether we are successful in expanding this herd or it just stalls out at a lower threshold than we have hoped, only time will tell."

Eric Koens, a director of the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association and a critic of the number of wolves in northern Wisconsin, said talk of bringing in more elk is ridiculous. "All they are doing is bringing in additional feasts for the wolves," the Rusk County cattleman said. "There is no predator that will decimate that herd like wolves." The DNR is now a victim of too many wolves, just like some farmers who have lost livestock and pets, Koens said. "Now it is backfiring in their own back yard, in their own project. I am not surprised."

In 1995, 25 elk from Michigan were released in Chequamegon National Forest near Clam Lake to determine if the animals - bigger than deer - could become established again without damaging private land or causing problems for other wildlife.

Wisconsin's last native elk was shot in 1866, researchers said.

Tom Toman, director of conservation for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Missoula, Mont., said 26 states have wild elk herds totaling about 1 million animals. There were fewer than 100,000 elk in the U.S. in 1900. Today, some states have too many, Toman said. Colorado's 300,000 are some 70,000 more than goal, he said.

In Wisconsin, the higher mortality of elk calves caused by wolves and bears has some people concerned, but the Elk Foundation remains convinced the herd can thrive, Toman said. "The habitat is there. We just need to give the elk a chance," he said.

Wildlife experts have documented the killing of 76 elk in Wisconsin since 1995, including three that were accidentally shot by deer hunters last fall and four that fell through ice on frozen lakes and drowned, Stowell said. Between 1995 and 2003, about 30 percent of the calves born in the spring didn't survive, Stowell said. The mortality rate has jumped to 50 percent the last two years and the number of young bulls being killed before they reach 2 1/2 years old is also higher, he said.

"Some of it is related to the expansion and development of the wolf population," Stowell said. "Wolves took over the No. 1 spot from vehicle collisions this past March. Right now, wolves account for about 25 percent of those deaths. Ten years ago, the wolf population was probably less than half of what it is now."

A late winter survey, based on tracking and monitoring of radio-collared wolves, estimates 465 to 503 wolves in 115 packs that populate mainly the northern and central forest regions of Wisconsin - up about 7 percent from a year before, the DNR said. Critics of the wolf contend those figures are too conservative. The state's goal is to have 350 wolves on lands it controls outside of Indian reservations.

When the elk were reintroduced, the revival of the wolf - after being wiped out in Wisconsin by the late 1950s after decades of bounty hunting - was well under way as wolves migrated from Minnesota. "Wolves did have a head start on the elk in terms of their colonizing of northern Wisconsin," Stowell said.

While wolves are an issue, it's the vehicle collisions with elk that are impacting the reproductiveness of the herd the most, Stowell said. Of the 14 elk killed in crashes, eight were adult cows, he said.

The state recently got a grant from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to install a $50,000 warning system on elk crossing signs on a six-mile stretch of state Highway 77. It would alert motorists when an elk with a radio collar approached the road. The radio collar, which has been attached to up to 70 elk, would trigger the warning, Stowell said. It is a system developed in Washington State.

Other changes being talked about to help spur growth in the herd include moving elk to other suitable habitat in the state. "With our knowledge of where wolf packs are, maybe those placements can be made in areas that are going to give the elk a head start on the wolves rather than vice versa," he said.

Kevin Wallenfang, a program director for Great Lakes region for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said the foundation is investing another $136,000 in Wisconsin's elk restoration project this year. "I have every confidence that the herd is going to continue to grow," he said. "The goal is to eventually have 1,400 animals running around that area."

  • Duluth News Tribune

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