By Ben Gruber
I had to battle my way through deep, fresh snow as I pointed my truck due west. Heavy clothes and snowshoes sat next to me, and I was armed with only a Nikon camera.
Anticipation had me awake at 4 a.m., boiling water for coffee and dreaming of all the elk I was going to find in the deep timber. With the deep snow, it was more likely that we would find elk feeding on the fringes of the woods, using agriculture fields and young growth forest in logging areas or burned over areas from recent wildfires.
It did not take long, and we were into the elk. A young cow was browsing on some young pine growth near the road. Scott Roepke, in the seat beside me, quickly identified her by her ear tag number and her bright orange VHF radio collar. Scott is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, and we were in southern Jackson County near Milliston. Less than 60 miles from Marshfield is elk country.
I spent the day with Roepke and his partner Scott Krultz, a wildlife technician for the DNR. This duo of Scotts manages the Jackson County elk herd on a daily basis. Since they were captured in Kentucky and transferred to Wisconsin in a mid-night interstate elk delivery, Roepke and Krultz have tracked their daily activities and monitored their health.
Our mission for the day was supposed to be traveling to the last known location of the elk and using the VHF radio collars to do “mortality checks.” Basically that entails sitting on the side of the road and listening to the radio beeps that would indicate if an animal has stopped moving for more than four hours.
Plans changed before I arrived at the DNR office in Black River Falls though, and the Scotts were waiting for me with a stock trailer hooked to a truck and a CO2-powered air rifle with sedative darts loaded. We had a wayward elk calf that lost its mother and in its search for her ended up on someone’s back porch, peering in the window.
It did not take us long to find the calf, standing on thin ice at the edge of a creek. After one well-placed shot, the calf lay down and went to sleep about five minutes later. We loaded the calf onto a sled and with a little sweating and grunting dragged it back up the hill to the trailer. Based on radio signals and GPS locations, we took the calf as close as we could to its mother and turned it loose. Hopefully instincts helped them reconnect.
It is difficult at this early stage to gauge the success of Wisconsin’s elk reintroduction so far. There have been losses to wolves, a few to vehicles, and some to disease, but there are also a few elk calves running around the Jackson County Forest that were born there too. With some luck and hard work from the DNR’s wildlife staff, cooperation from locals, and support from volunteers and donors, we hope to see elk flourish here like they once did.
I have high hopes for September of this year. I really, really want to hear an elk bugle in the wild in my home state. I will be out there, listening and watching. Just 60 miles from home.
Ben Gruber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.