MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin wildlife officials announced Wednesday they won't implement the state's first elk hunt this year because the herd is still too small and fragile, marking another delay in fulfilling a decade-year-old herd management plan.
Wisconsin law prohibits elk hunting until the state's herd surpasses 200 animals. But lack of food, car kills and predators have kept the herd small for years. Department of Natural Resources biologists were hopeful the herd would finally reach the 200 mark this year, but Kevin Wallenfang, the agency's big game ecologist, said population models show the herd will be only about 175 strong this spring after calving.
"After calving you're only going to lose animals," Wallenfang said. "We are just not at that 200-animal level yet."
Elk vanished from Wisconsin in the 1800s due to hunting and shrinking habitat as prairies became farmland. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point reintroduced the animal in 1995, setting 25 Michigan elk loose near Clam Lake in Ashland County. The DNR adopted a management plan in 2000 that called for growing the herd to 1,400 elk and establishing a 390-elk herd in Jackson County.
But the Clam Lake herd has struggled. The area lacks young aspen trees, a favorite elk food source, and wolves, bears and collisions with cars have combined to keep their numbers down.
The discovery of chronic wasting disease in the state's deer herd in 2002 put the brakes on establishing the Jackson County herd. Regulations designed to slow the disease's spread prohibited bringing a deer or elk into the state unless the animals originated from a counted herd verified as disease-free for five years. Those rules have effectively halted wild elk importation since wild herds can't be quantified or confirmed disease-free.
Wildlife officials have ramped up their efforts to bolster the herd over the last year or so, though, saying they understand elk better now and believe they can import healthy elk from elsewhere.
The Natural Resources Board adopted a revised elk management plan in December that calls for importing up to 275 wild elk, possibly from Kentucky, over a three-to-five year period. The effort could cost up to $560,000, but the plan notes a number of groups, have pledged to cover the expense, including the Ho-Chunk Nation, the Jackson County Wildlife Fund and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
At least 200 elk would join the Clam Lake herd and at least 75 would go to Jackson County. DNR officials would make an effort to better disperse both herds across their ranges, which would, in theory, cut down on car collisions and predator kills. Provisions in Gov. Scott Walker's executive budget would exempt the elk from the CWD rules. The budget still would require DNR officials to determine the animals are healthy to the best of their ability.
Wallenfang said the earliest new elk might arrive in the state would be 2015.
Larry Bonde is vice chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, a group of influential sportsmen who advise the DNR on policy. He said hunters probably will react to postponing the hunt with a shrug.
They understand Wisconsin's elk have been struggling for years and if a hunt is ever established the DNR likely will issue only a handful of licenses, he said. After the population reaches 200 animals, DNR regulations allow hunters to kill 5 percent of the herd, however large it is. Half of that quota would be reserved for Chippewa tribal hunters according to treaty stipulations that grant the tribes the right to 50 percent of the quota for any animal hunted in northern Wisconsin.
"People are disappointed but what are you going to do?" Bonde said. "The expectations for a hunt are pretty low right now. I don't think it's anything where the sportsmen are sitting there clamoring, 'I want it, I want it, I want it.'"
Wisconsin's Chippewa bands authorized tribal members to kill one elk last September, citing treaties that grant them the right to hunt and fish in northern Wisconsin. The decision angered DNR officials, who maintained the move was a setback for state-tribal relations.
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