Elk resurgence a success story for DNR

ATLANTA — This year the Michigan Department of Natural Resources issued more than 200 elk hunting permits allowing hunters to kill elk from the Montmorency County herd, which is thousands strong.

This marks a significant change in the herd, which was reintroduced into Michigan in 1918 with the introduction of seven elk from a different state. This year the DNR is celebrating 100 years of the herd in Michigan.

DNR Wildlife Field Operations Manager Brian Mastenbrook said the fact elk are managed through hunts with the assistance of residents marks conservation success for the DNR. He said that effort really did not take place until around the 1970s.

“(The elk) were really put out there and let go and really in the ’70s the decision was made to keep the herd and start managing it to get potential benefit, not just from viewing and from hunting. It’s just been a wonderful conservation success story,” he said.

Mastenbrook said the location where the animals were reintroduced also was a benefit and contributed to the herd’s success.

“It was cut over, burnt over, and wide open, which is what elk need, there was still good thermal cover,” he said. “They were protected and they grew but the beginning of management and the idea of actually managing a big chunk of forest for them, increasing law enforcement and reducing illegal take and now the control of them of hunting is a perfect example of what wildlife management to be.”

Mastenbrook said allowing hunters to kill elk during set seasons is a good management tool because elk have no natural predators in Michigan.

“A bear or a coyote may get an occasional calf but that’s it, so humans are needed to maintain the population at the level, or else we would have elk from Alpena to Elk Rapids, and they would be in places they were not appreciated,” he said. “They are two or three times the size of a deer, they’re also much harder on fences, they are harder on crops, and they’re so much more visible, you would see every problem then would be attributed to them.”

Mastenbrook said in the 1960s there was a real concern that elk were competing with deer for food and deer were not growing and that deer were being held back by elk.

“There is not that perception anymore, and we’ve done that by building up both programs and demonstrating that they can coexist on both sides,” he said.

This year there were 200 licenses issued for elk split over two hunts. Mastenbrook said the first hunt ended the first week of October with 74 out of 100 elk killed in the hunt. A second hunt will take place in December for the second 100 elk license holders.

He said of the October hunt there were 30 bulls killed and 44 antlerless and calf elk killed.

License numbers are determined based on the herd size, he said.

“We have an elk management plan that has a population goal, every other year we do a population survey to see where we are in that goal, then we set a quota, how many animals we can take to keep us in that goal range,” Mastenbrook said. “There are around 40,000 applications for 100 to 300 licenses a year.”

Hunters are selected through a lottery. It is $5 to apply for a license and $100 for the license. All the funding generated goes into the general wildlife management fund for the DNR.

“We spend more than $100,000 a year to hold elk on state land. It’s not free, and there are a lot of inputs, but it’s a really successful program and it’s worked well for wildlife management and everyone involved,” he said.

Mastenbrook said Michigan’s elk story is a feather in the cap for conservation officers and the public who have helped manage the herd.

“It’s really rewarding. This is a success story, this is just how you want it to work out and the really nice thing is the positives with elk really outweigh the negatives,” he said. “There are concerns but we work pretty hard to minimize them, we have a really positive story with elk and that is nice, that is frosting on the cake.”

Jason Ogden can be reached via email at jogden@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Jason on Twitter @jo_alpenanews.