NORTHERN WISCONSIN - Many of the state's wild animals dwindled in numbers or disappeared when people settled here.
Some species are once again gaining territory here. However, that story varies from animal to animal.
The elk is Wisconsin's largest native mammal, and can only be found in the wild in the northern part of the state.
However, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Elk Biologist Laine Stowell says at one time, "There were herds of thousands across the state."
The magnificent creature was abundant in the wild until hunters killed them off.
In 1995, a reintroduction effort brought the wild animal back to Wisconsin. 25 radio-collared elk were released into the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Clam Lake in Ashland County.
Stowell monitors the herd's movements with radio telemetry equipment. About half of the 164 elk now occupying the range wear radio collars which transmit signals his receiver picks up.
As I drove around the range with Stowell, we picked up some of those signals. The receiver would beep when elk were near. "This is cow 151," said Stowell of a female elk on the radar. "She also has a calf."
Stowell's followed the elk herd for a decade, and studies the animal's survival, reproduction rates, feeding habits, and dispersal.
"You can see plenty of elk tracks over here on the driveway," said Stowell as we searched for elk on the range. "They've been in here for awhile. So these are normally cow calf groups, however this time of year they're split up amongst a dozen different herd bulls," explained Stowell.
The elk are more commonly seen in the fall during mating season, however the animal is generally an elusive beast.
With the help of Stowell's handheld radio telemetry equipment, a long hike through the forest in Clam Lake yielded our second find.
The cows, or female elk, saw us watching from a distance.
Stowell let out a cow call, hoping to reassure them we're no danger.
A bull call brought no response.
"We won't fool ‘em," said Stowell. "They got a good nose full of us already."
The elk herd hasn't grown as quickly as expected. The goal was 1400 animals. But growth has dropped, and losses rose this year to their highest.
"Part of that is because as this herd has grown, other density dependent factors have started to exercise themselves on the herd," explained Stowell.
The leading cause of death for elk is predation by wolves.
DNR biologists say 11 elk were killed by the predator in the last year.
And while the packs used to go after the bulls, or male elk, wolves are increasing their attacks on the cows - which has the potential to limit or even reduce the herd size.
Vehicle collisions are also a major cause of death.
Highway 77 runs through Clam Lake. It's a border area between wolf packs, and elk gather there to avoid them.
Flashing lights activated by the elks' radio collars have been installed so drivers know when they're around.
"We've had a healthy growth of the herd there is some dampening of that growth rate in the last six years. But we're looking at doing some management practices that we hope will mitigate some of those issues," Stowell said.
While the elk is protected, once the herd reaches 200, there will be a hunt with a quota of 10 bulls.
Another species native to Wisconsin, the black bear, never disappeared from the state. But a few decades ago numbers dwindled because of unlimited harvests.
"The population was definitely way lower than we see today," said bear hunter Dick Baudhuin. "In the '60s, hunting the same area, or basically the same area, we might not find but one track a day."
DNR Wildlife biologist John Huff says before the mid-80s, "It used to be bears were kind of an incidental hunt."
The DNR had no control over the number of bears hunters killed, and decided it should.
"Because of concerns about over harvest," explained Huff. "And we had difficulty getting that to the point that the season was closed for a year. That started the current system of specific bear permits and a drawing system for those bear permits."
Since then the population has quadrupled from less than 6,000 in 1985, to as many as an estimated 40,000 today.
Huff says in recent years, the DNR underestimated bear numbers.
As a result, more people have been able to hunt what's now considered a trophy animal.
In Wisconsin hunters can use dogs and bait to catch their prey.
"We've increased harvest on bears, particularly over the past two years," said Huff. "And we've committed to another examination of bear populations starting in 2011."
As bear numbers rise, the DNR has also seen bear range expanding. Most live in the northern third and central forest areas of the state, but some have gone south.
The DNR says while bears may be a thrilling sight for wildlife watchers, the species can be extremely destructive and needs to be managed through hunting.
Baudhuin, who is also a member of the state's Conservation Congress, agrees. The group advises the DNR on outdoor sporting issues like hunting and trapping.
"I think it's just good
business to continue to have a bear season as we have it," Baudhuin said.
But Patricia Randolph - a member of a group called "Wildlife Ethic for a Living Democracy" disagrees. Randolph is a hunting opponent who served on the Congress for three years.
"They (the DNR) are as they described to me, a killing business, and I don't think a killing business is appropriate to the challenges we face," said Randolph. "It's absurd, and it's pathetic that we have a DNR that facilitates this kind of cruelty for fun, for recreation, and for money, and for power."
Another wild animal has been rumored to be seen in Wisconsin for years. And now the DNR says the cougar is back after being gone for a century.
"It wasn't until 2008 that we were actually able to confirm a true wild cougar in the state," said the DNR's leading cougar expert Adrian Wydeven.
That was in Rock County. Since then there have been just four confirmed sightings. The most recent confirmed cougar in the state was caught on Jamie Demmith's trail camera last May in Lena.
"That was the first picture on the camera actually," said Jamie Demmith, "and I just couldn't believe it until I zoomed in, and I thought 'Holy Man'!"
Last year, a trail camera in western Wisconsin captured video of another cougar. The animal had apparently made a kill and hid it in a cornfield.
Wydeven believes the cougars are coming from South Dakota, the nearest breeding population. So is the cougar here to stay?
"They're not going to stay until they also have females here. So they'll probably keep moving on the landscape until there are also females present," Wydeven said.
The DNR hopes to learn more about cougar movements and habitat use by capturing and radio collaring one. Last year the DNR tried unsuccessfully to collar a male cougar treed by hunters in Burnett County.
Despite some beliefs there are more cougars here than the DNR admits, Wydeven says he's certain the state doesn't have a high population.
"We know, the ones we know of, how they were captured on numerous trail cameras. We were able to get good DNA samples from them that I can't believe there's a lot living out there that we're not able to get some kind of evidence of," Wydeven said.
Cougars are protected in Wisconsin. It's illegal to kill one unless it's threatening a person's safety.
So far, says Wydeven, "We have no indications that these animals have acted aggressively toward people."
Some people feel cougars are attacking their livestock, but at this point the DNR says it has not confirmed any reports.
A plan for dealing with potential cougar problems is in the works.
The DNR's Bear Committee is set to meet next week to talk about nuisance and agricultural complaints over the last year and bear hunting season results.
The committee will also establish preliminary quotas and permit levels for next year.
A panel of experts tasked with reviewing Outagamie County's response to a series of tornadoes that hit the county in August revealed its findings Wednesday.
The decision for whether or not Walmart can continue to investigate locating a store in Green Bay's Broadway District is now up to the city's redevelopment authority.
Explorers who removed a wooden slab from Lake Michigan this summer are taking an unusual step to determine whether it could have come from Le Griffon, a long-lost vessel from the 17th century.
A Green Bay-based beef processing company has submitted the minimum $12.75 million bid for an idled South Dakota plant, according to court paperwork filed Wednesday.
Repairs to a U.S. 41 overpass in Appleton will cost $175,000, with the company that struck the bridge picking up the tab, the state said Wednesday.
We have new details in a story about Minneapolis police officers who got into trouble in Green Bay.