Click here to view more information about Wisconsin's elk population.
There is a lot of stuff that makes the Badger State what it is. Good food, some of the best cheese in the world and about as many outdoor recreational sports as people could ever want to do. But Wisconsin has some wildlife most people have no idea about, elk.
Actually, elk are native to Wisconsin, but for more than 100 years, they've been gone. That is until a project in 1995 aimed to bring back the population, and it's been doing just that, bringing dozens of elk at a time right back here to Wisconsin.
There is a good chance you've never seen an elk in Wisconsin. They had disappeared from the state completely for more than 100 years, until 1995.
UW Stevens Point Professor of Wildlife, Tim Ginnett, says it’s been a successful project. "There have been a couple of projects to reintroduce elk. Coming out of this university there was a successful result in 1995 of 25 elk."
UW Stevens Point worked with the Wisconsin DNR and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to bring wild elk from a herd in Michigan, and they've been watching the population slowly grow ever since.
For the first time, our camera crew was invited to go along with the DNR and others involved with the project to see just how much it's grown.
The main elk population can be found in Clam Lake, in the northwest corner of the state.
But this night, we're looking for elk from a second- smaller herd near Butternut in Price County.
DNR Wildlife Biologist, Mike Zeckmeister has worked on the project since the beginning.
"It’s kind of neat. When we started the elk population around Clam Lake there was a group of elk that just kind of left that area and they came over to this area near Butternut and they set up shop here,” says Zeckmeister.
Although the elk have thousands of miles to roam, they seem to stay within a 90 mile radius.
That means this group knows just where to go to find the herd. Still, there's no guarantee of finding elk. The crew sometimes comes home from these trips empty-handed. But, the conditions on this night are perfect. Calm winds, and right around 10 degrees.
“We do a lot of work leading up to it. We have to bait the elk to a site, and we get them coming there and we construct the trap. We put hay in there and get them accustomed to going inside the trap,” says Zeckmeister.
The trap is probably the largest you'll ever see, about 60 feet by 60 feet. A member of the crew watches from about 100 yards away in a blind. We’re called in when there's word of success.
Some elk have picked up the scent of the apples inside, and slowly made their way into the trap, where a gate closes them in. That’s when the work starts says Zeckmeister.
"We have to sedate them what we'll be doing is taking measurements on them. Getting blood test from them and probably more importantly were going to put radio collar on their neck to see their movements."
Once the animals are sedated, the team moves in quickly and very quietly. It’s obvious they've done this before.
On this night there are two large cows and two calves. All of them need to have new collars installed.
You have no idea how large an elk is until you get this up close and personal with them.
They can range from 300 to 900 pounds. The size means the crew has to take extra care as they work.
The crew moves animal to animal, putting an orange collar on each one. The bright colors are to help protect the elk from one of their biggest killers-vehicles on area highways.
The collar is followed by an ear tag and detailed notes of each individual elk. With four newly tagged and collared elk, this night's a success.
"By knowing where those elk are in the spring, were going to be able to go out there and see if they have any calves. That tells us how many calves are going to be born and helps tell the movement of the elk,” says Zeckmeister.
The current goal is to get the population over 200 elk. Once that goal is reached, they plan to institute a limited bull hunting season says Zeckmeister.
"Were going to be able to have a hunting season in Wisconsin and that's going to be totally awesome. People won't have to go out west for a hunting season; they can come up to the Clam Lake area."
They say revenue from the hunting licenses and permits will continue to fund their research, and reintroduction.
The DNR says that goal is still a few years away, but they're confident they'll eventually have a strong, sustained population in the state.
"It’s really neat to be able to restore a piece of wildlife that used to be here. We’ve pretty well demonstrated that their still compatible with the landscape. There still compatible with deer, bears and wolves. It is all very exciting,” says Zeckmeister.
The DNR says that anyone who is interested in seeing these elk in their natural habitat can do so.
Clam Lake has multiple viewing areas where elk can be seen on most evenings.