Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
A caravan of livestock trailers carrying 48 wild elk from Kentucky arrived in Wisconsin on Wednesday morning.
The animals were unloaded into a 7-acre quarantine pen near Winter in the Flambeau River State Forest.
If all goes according to plan, the elk will be released in about two months.
The animals represent the last shipment in a five-year agreement between the states.
“This marks the final chapter in our translocation efforts,” said Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole in a statement. “It’s been a tremendous project that relied on many great partners, and we’re all looking forward to seeing what the future brings for Wisconsin elk and the people who enjoy them.”
In the bigger picture, they likely are the last elk to be shipped to Wisconsin from any source, and perhaps the last inter-state transfer of elk in the U.S.
Disease concerns among cervids, principally chronic wasting disease, have dramatically increased over the last two decades and rules largely prohibit such inter-state transfers.
Kentucky is one of a dwindling number of states in which a case of CWD has not been detected. That includes all deer and elk tested in 2018, according to Kentucky wildlife officials.
The 2019 shipment of elk was trapped in late January on reclaimed mining sites in Kentucky. The animals were then held in a pen for health checks and a quarantine period before Wednesday’s transfer.
Unlike previous captures that used traps, the 2019 cohort of elk was collected with the use of a helicopter and net gun. The process was extremely efficient, said Kevin Wallenfang, deer and elk ecologist with the Wisconsin DNR.
The pact with Kentucky called for up to 150 elk to be transferred to Wisconsin over up to five years.
Previous shipments of Kentucky elk established a central Wisconsin herd in and around Black River Falls State Forest as well as augmented the size and genetic diversity of the state’s northern herd.
Seventy-three Kentucky elk were brought to Jackson County in 2015 and 2016.
And in 2017, 31 elk were released in the Flambeau River State Forest in north-central Wisconsin.
No elk were transferred to Wisconsin in 2018 due to a project to establish a herd at a new site in Kentucky.
Though there was some concern whether a final shipment would be made this year, Kentucky officials held true to their word.
The work is part of the DNR’s efforts to further the restoration of the species in Wisconsin. Elk are native to Wisconsin but were extirpated in the 1800s.
The Badger State started an experimental reintroduction project in 1995 when 25 animals were transferred from Michigan to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Clam Lake.
The project was initially run by UW-Stevens Point researchers and was transferred to the DNR in 1999.
The herd has grown slowly and surpassed 200 elk last year, according to DNR estimates.
In 2018 Wisconsin held its first limited hunting season for 10 bull elk (five state-issued tags and five tribal tags) in the Clam Lake herd. Nine animals were killed in the hunt, which raised more than $400,000 for elk management in Wisconsin.
In addition to a state application process that received about 38,000 applications at $10 each, a fifth state tag was raffled off by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Approximately 5,000 tickets were sold by the RMEF, raising about $50,000. The money will also be used for Wisconsin elk projects, said Kurt Flack, RMEF regional director.
In fact, the RMEF raffle proceeds paid for the entire helicopter trapping effort in January, Flack said.
“We’re excited to have worked with the DNR to bring more elk to Wisconsin,” Flack said. “We’re also excited for the future of the state’s elk management program.”
The new funding streams associated with the elk hunt provided a critical boost to the DNR. Over the last decade or so, the agency has had to scale back some wildlife management activities due to funding cuts imposed by the Legislature and a failure by the Legislature to increase license fees. No Wisconsin state hunting or fishing license fee has been increased since 2005.
Seven dollars from every $10 application fee, as well as proceeds from the RMEF raffle, are earmarked for elk management and research in Wisconsin.
Principal funding for the transfer to northern Wisconsin has come from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The Ho-Chunk Nation and Jackson County Wildlife Fund also assisted with the central Wisconsin reintroduction.
A hunt is planned in Wisconsin again this year; like 2018, it will be restricted to the Clam Lake area.
The DNR’s long-term population goal is 1,400 elk in northern Wisconsin.
“We’ve seen slow but steady population growth over the years, and the additional elk are already contributing to an increasing population and genetic richness in the herd,” Wallenfang said.
The agency did not provide a breakdown of the sex and age of the animals in Wednesday’s shipment, but said “most” of the 48 were female and pregnancy testing indicated that “most of the adult females are carrying a calf.”
Caretakers are on site in the Flambeau River State Forest to provide daily feeding and monitoring of the elk and to ensure quarantine security.
The public is asked to avoid the general vicinity of the pen until the elk are released. Minimizing human disturbance near the release site will allow the elk to adjust to the area and will maximize the success of reintroduction efforts, according to the DNR.