Tracking Wisconsin's growing elk population - WAOW - Newsline 9, Wausau News, Weather, Sports

Tracking Wisconsin's growing elk population

Clam Lake (WAOW) -

The sound of snapping brush surrounds you as a team of elk trackers slices through the dense brush of the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest.  They're moving swiftly to rendezvous with team members who have tracked down an elk calf outside Clam Lake.

It's a sight making Laine Stowell smile.  

"The most beautiful words in the English language is 'the calf's over here," Stowell said.

Stowell is a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources elk biologist.  For the past 13 springs, he's been leading the charge to track these animals once eradicated from Wisconsin.

The annual search uses scores of volunteers to track down elk calves and placing a radio collar device on them.  The collars are harmless to the elk, but vital to their successful return to our state.  The radio devices permit biologists to track the location and health of the growing herd.

"The purpose is to monitor the population of the elk here and get a radio collar on these young calves, so we can monitor their survivorship," Stowell said.

But this labor-intensive and delicate process of attaching collars has to be done one calf at a time.  That's why battalions of volunteers spend days searching vast swaths of the wilderness to find these animals.

"We've either conserved or protected almost 2,000 acres right here in Wisconsin southeast of Hayward," Lou George said.

George is regional director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.  That's the group working with the Wisconsin DNR to oversee how the elk population is doing.

The foundation is a national organization with several chapters in Central Wisconsin including Wausau and Marshfield.

George says each chapter takes pride in their collective work in watching the elk count grow.

"We're up to about 170 animals right now, but natural predation; wolves and bears and some highway mortality, has taken it's toll on the growth a bit," George said. 

According to the Wisconsin DNR, the long-term vision of the species re-introduction effort is to grow the state's population to approximately 1,400 elk.  The majority of which in the range surrounding the Clam Lake region.

Unfortunately for elk enthusiasts though is there is no way to know for certain how long it will take the species to reach a self-sustaining population of that magnitude.

"That's up to the elk," Stowell after returning from the elk calf search. "They're not like deer, they only have one calf per year," he continued.

During the search that Newsline 9 accompanied the elk tracking volunteers, one calf was collared in the brush deep inside the National Forest.

And with each calf found and collared, the volunteers and biologists alike echo a common sentiment.  They don't view their efforts as a personal victory.  It's in continuing the successful return of this species to the state.

"It's all about the next generation, and the next many generations," George of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation said.  

That includes the generation of Jacob Holtz and his brother Sawyer of Marathon County.  As the youngest members of the search team, each younger than 12, their awe and amazement of nature's beauty is telling.

"I saw an elk in real life," Sawyer said with an excited grin after returning from the successful collaring.

"I was surprised," his brother Jacob continued.  

The male elk Sawyer and Jacob helped track was less than 40 pounds and very calm is stature when discovered.  A far cry from the size it will grow into as a bull elk.

According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, adult male elk average weighing 700 pounds, stand five feet tall at the shoulder and are eight feet long from tail to nose.  

Wrapping up the search biologist Laine Stowell summed up his appreciation of the volunteers helping out, especially those younger members of the team.

"They're the ones who give us old-timers the will to go on," Stowell said.

Connecting one generation to the next, working to keep Wisconsin's wilderness, wild.

Elk tracking begins in mid-May, and typically extends until June 15.  For information on how to help search or for more on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, follow this link here.

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