Back to Black River elk country
By Ben Gruber
Regular readers of this column might recall that last winter I spent a day with DNR Wildlife staff out of Black River Falls checking out the new elk herd roaming the forests to our southwest. I was lucky enough that day to be a part of sedating and catching a wayward calf and reuniting her with her herd. Back in early June, I got a call that they were looking for some volunteers to help search for newborn calves.
A handful of volunteers from across the state and some DNR staff met in the parking lot of the DNR Service Center in Black River Falls. After a quick briefing, we loaded up in trucks and headed into the state forest.
Using GPS data from individual elks’ collars, Biologist Scott Roepke would watch for a cow elk to seclude herself from the herd and settle down in a small area for a few days. When this happens, it is presumed that she is calving. That is when the volunteers come in, and we head to that spot.
We waited around near the trucks while Roepke used radio telemetry to narrow down the cow’s location, and then we formed a line of searchers and methodically moved through the thick woods. Often the brush was so thick that we were mere feet apart, looking for a well-camouflaged critter the size of my black lab.
Our first search was unsuccessful, and after three passes we gave up and moved on to the second location. On our first pass, a quiet call came out from the right side of the search line, “I found one.”
Anticipation and excitement pushed us, though the directions from the morning briefing reminded us to move calmly and quietly.
Up until a few days old, the calf’s chosen defense is to remain as still as possible and hope not to be discovered. We circled around the calf, and DNR staff reached in and covered the calf’s head with a hood to keep him calm. It worked, and he remained nearly motionless while he was fitted with an ear tag, GPS/radio collar, and a quick weight on a hand-held scale.
Eleven-year-old Zowie Hunter was one of our volunteers that day, and she was lucky enough to be right in the thick of things. She named this calf Bullseye, seeing a bull’s eye pattern in his spots — and because he was a bull calf.
With all of that taken care of, we quietly faded into the woods, his hood was removed, and he lay there quietly awaiting his mother to soon return, no worse for the excitement.
Russell Hunter, Zowie’s father, was with us that day as well. He is the manager of the Division of Natural Resources for the Ho-Chunk Nation, a partner in the elk reintroduction effort here in west-central Wisconsin. This project is a huge undertaking, made possible by the many partners and volunteers, all willing to commit great amounts of time, effort, and money to bring these animals back.
Two days later, I was able to take my daughter, Addy, back for another day of searching. We returned to the location we unsuccessfully searched a few days prior and were lucky enough to find the calf this time. Addy was equal parts excited to see and pet the calf and proud that she got to name him. Naming the calves is an unofficial part of the process, but both of these young ladies loved it, and it may be that they have started a tradition. This young bull is named Sven, after a reindeer in a favorite princess movie of hers that I have been forced to watch too many times.
I am thankful that we have this opportunity nearby and encourage others to explore many of the great volunteer opportunities available to enhance our natural resources. Kids love it too.
Ben Gruber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.