Friday, October 4, 2013

Elk and Wildness

The spicy smell of sweet-fern hung in the mist as we stepped quietly onto the forest road and gingerly shut our car doors. Laine Stowell, DNR Elk Biologist, slung his telemetry equipment, a bull elk bugle call, and a cow elk call over his shoulders. The remains of a damp night lingered. Low clouds merged with ground fog, and water droplets clung to every leaf blade.

The wildness of the 1,530,647 acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest seemed heightened by the fog. For me, its wildness is also enhanced by the return of another species. Elk were extirpated from Wisconsin in the 1800s due to over hunting and a rapid decline in habitat. In 1995, twenty-five elk were released into the National Forest near Clam Lake, and the DNR now estimates the population to be about 170 animals.

Through the mist we walked, each lost in our own quiet thoughts. Where the road intersected with a power line, Laine paused, and we gathered in a loose group. Using the cow call, he made low bleating sounds. Then, switching to the bull elk call, he let out a series of haunting bugles.

If another bull was listening, we hoped that he would think we were a herd of cows being protected by a bull. "They basically gauge each other by the masculinity of their bugle…” If Laine sounded weak, maybe another bull would challenge him. Then we would get to hear a real elk bugle, and possibly even see one come in to investigate.

“[Bugling] also plays a function in that it synchronizes the cows estrocycle and makes the breeding of the cows more efficient," said Stowell.

Breeding and calving was pretty successful last year. According to Laine, 35 to 37 new calves were expected. Of those, 23 were actually found by DNR staff and volunteers and fitted with tracking collars that will provide future information about their survival.

In past years, more males than females have been born. This year, for the first time in this herd, the ratio included three more females than males. The reason for this is still a point of speculation, but researches have noticed that cows with a high proportion of kidney fat tend to have more male calves. The abundance of males in the past could suggest that this is excellent habitat, and elk are thriving in their new home, resulting in good nutrition and fat storage.

But why the change? Laine suspects that wolves might be chasing the cows more often, and keeping them leaner. Wolves do account for an increasing proportion of elk mortality. When elk were reintroduced, wolves had to re-learn how to effectively kill this new prey, since elk are about five times the size of a white-tail deer. Two local wolf packs have learned the game well, and account for most of the wolf predation.

Researchers aren’t too troubled by this--it is a natural and expected part of both elk and wolf ecology--but they would like to see the herd grow more quickly. Laine takes it all in stride, and just accepts the challenge of restoring a prey population when its predator population has already successfully restored itself.

One thing that land managers and wildlife ecologists hope to accomplish together is improving elk habitat. Mature forests provide fewer tasty, tender new twigs and less of an escape advantage to elk. On the other hand, aspen clear-cuts provide plentiful forage for the elk. Some describe them as “dog-hair stands,” because the trees grow as thick as the hair on a dog’s back. Laine surmises that wolves have a much harder time running through these thick young trees than the lanky elk.

Based on telemetry data, no elk have been preyed upon by wolves while using the one large clear-cut in their range. This supports the value of such land management to the elk recovery. Smaller, patchy, clear-cuts do not provide the same benefit. While they may have tasty forage, wolves soon figure out that the elk gather there to eat. Then the wolves can easily chase the elk into the mature forest surrounding the aspen regeneration, and it becomes the wolves’ diner instead.

The group walked a little farther into the forest, passing an open meadow where Laine often sees elk. At the top of a small knoll, we pause again, and Laine gives his calls. As we listen quietly for a response, chickadees flit and chatter in a nearby pine. In the distance, a mystery bird squawks, and blue jays squawk back. Laine bugles again. This time, a loon responds with its lonely wail. Then a hiker’s stomach responds with a hungry growl. It’s almost time to head home.

Finally, from the misty distance, a real bull elk bugles in response. A minute later, another elk bulges from farther away. We listen for another minute or two, then walk back to the cars under a brightening sky. I pluck a ripe blackberry from an overhanging bush and savor the flavor of wildness in the morning.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April 2014.

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