2008-08-21 / Sports

A quarter-century of elk hunting in Michigan

A Wildlife Management Success

When hunters take to the northern Lower Peninsula fields and forests Aug. 26 for the opening day of the 2008 elk season, they’ll be participating in a wildlife management milestone: the 25th consecutive year of elk hunting in Michigan.

“That’s the way wildlife management is supposed to work,” said Brian Mastenbrook, wildlife biologist at the Department of Natural Resources’ Gaylord field office.

Since modern-day elk hunting was reestablished in Michigan in 1984, more than a million applications have been submitted, 5,310 licenses have been issued and hunters have taken 4,520 elk. That’s not bad, considering the animals were completely eliminated from the state a little more than a century ago.

Elk, which were indigenous to the Lower Peninsula, disappeared by 1877. There is inconclusive evidence they ever existed in the Upper Peninsula. Conservation officials made several unsuccessful attempts to reestablish elk in the state. But in 1918, seven Rocky Mountain elk released near Wolverine in Cheboygan County flourished. Those elk became the basis for today’s herd, and as the herd grew, the animals expanded their range.

Although a tourism industry grew up around viewing the approximately 1,200-1,500 animals in the herd in the early 1960s, conflicts arose after farmers, foresters and deer hunters complained the elk were having a negative impact on the area.

The legislature authorized the Conservation Dept. to hold limited, controlled elk hunts during a two-year period. In 1964, 23,000 hunters applied for 300 licenses for the Dec. 5-13 elk hunt. Hunting conditions were ideal with good tracking snow, and the 298 hunters enjoyed a 90 percent success rate, killing 269 legal elk. The following year, some 35,000 hunters applied for 300 licenses for the Dec. 8-16 hunt. Weather was mild with almost no snow. The success rate fell to 61 percent with 183 elk killed.

Unfortunately, the hunts coincided with a decline in suitable elk habitat and increased real estate development in the area. The openings and young forests the elk had been released into 50 years earlier had matured, reducing food availability. Combined with increased human activity, including numerous incidents of poaching, the herd suffered. The population fell until there were only about 200 elk remaining in Michigan by the winter of 1975.

In the late 1970s, more public attention again was focused on the elk herd, in part because of the controversy surrounding oil and gas development in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. The Concept of Management for the Pigeon River Country adopted in 1973 and the Elk Management Plan of 1984 both identified improving habitat as a priority. Improved habitat and the success of a concentrated effort by the Law Enforcement Division to reduce poaching allowed the elk herd to rebuild.

By 1984 it was estimated at 850 animals, near the current-day management goal for the herd and the DNR held an elk season with some 45,908 hunters applying for 50 licenses for the six-day, Dec. 11-16 elk hunt.

In 1985, a record 52,658 applicants sought 120 licenses. Elk seasons continued to run for six days until 1988, when the season was expanded to eight days. Hunts were typically held in December, though some experimental October hunts took place.

In 1992, the DNR began holding hunts in September in addition to what has now become known as the “traditional” December hunt. The earlier hunts were designed to take elk that had dispersed from the desired home range on state forestland and were causing conflicts with landowners. By 1997, the DNR issued 355 elk licenses and in 2001 a record 410 licenses were available. This year, more than 40,000 hunters applied for one of the 330 elk licenses. Using new census techniques, DNR wildlife managers estimate the elk population at nearly 1,200 in January. The post-season population of 800 to 900 elk in the winter herd means even a 100 percent success rate this season would leave the herd within the desired population goal.

Courtesy MI DNR

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