This past spring I was invited by my friend and co-publisher Matt Smith to join him and other RMEF members to assist the Wisconsin DNR in the elk restoration project at Clam Lake. We would be hunting elk! Well… at least their newborn calves.
The Clam Lake herd lives free range in the Chequamegan National Forest and neighboring private lands of Ashland County. The herd was introduced in 1995 when approximately 25 animals were released. It has since grown to over 160 animals and is intensely managed and studied by the associates of the University of Wisconsin (Stevens Point), Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Currently, the project reigns have been handed over to Laine Stowell and Matt McKay of the Wis. DNR, who with help from Beth Blicharz, make over 8000 telemetry locations and ~ 10,000 mortality checks annually on the ~90 elk fitted with telemetry collars.
In the spring, known collared elk are monitored daily until a cow breaks from the rest of the herd. She is then checked twice per day to maintain her position electronically. During her isolation, if she stays in one location for more than 48 hours an assumption is made that she gave birth. Care is taken to make a visual on her, and her undisturbed location is marked by one researcher. He then backs out and regroups with the rest of us volunteers, many from the RMEF. With the help of 12 to 15 of us, we form a close wall standing 8 to 10 feet apart and begin a sweep of the area to find the calf.
On the first sweep that I was a part of, we found the calf on our first attempt. It was weighed, a hair sample was collected for DNA testing, and it was fitted with a transmitter collar and battery. We took some pictures and I took some video footage of the event. From the time of capture and subsequent release, only five minutes had elapsed. We all backed out to allow the mother to quickly return. None of us were wearing any perfume or mosquito repellent. We tried to minimize foreign odor or sweet smells that could attract bears to the location of the calf.
We checked on this calf electronically the following day, and the signal came in strong indication the calf had moved away from the capture location and was doing well. I can’t say the same for a different calf that was collard a few days prior. Its transmitter was relaying a mortality signal that is triggered following more than 4 hours of inactivity. We went in to search for this calf’s remains and found them partially consumed stuffed under a log. The different sized bear scat in the area indicated a sow and at least one juvenile cub had made a kill. This was also part of nature’s way. We can’t love the game species and hate the predators that rely on them.
As of my last report from the guys, out of the 20 calves that were collard in 2009, 13 were still alive. Inquiring about the mortality, I was told that 5 out of the seven deaths were due to predation by bears. There are wolves in the area, but bears are the number one reason for calf mortality. Wolves may kill more elk over all, because they are not limited to just springtime predation and can utilize adult animals in late winter as well.
At the end of the trip we got a chance to break away on our own and Matt Smith and I caught four muskies on a nearby lake. We also discovered a pocket of three bull elk, which I immediately made a stalk on. Two off them were very wide and developing nicely for early June. Unfortunately they got back into the timber before I could get much video of them. Luckily the smallest of the three bulls came back out into the open and walked toward me. I remained still while focusing the video camera. The bull looked right through me as I was wearing my Sitka 90% jacket of Mothwing Mountain Mimicry pattern. Matt took the picture of me in full view of the young bull from 400 yards.
You can see that we don’t only hunt elk in the fall, but this springtime hunt was unique for me and gave me a better idea of where the money I spend on licenses and donations to conservation efforts really goes. It was fun to be briefly “One with Wisconsin Wapiti!”