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From Yellowstone to Wolverine

By Tim Chilcote

WOLVERINE – Elk re-establishment in Michigan began as a response to a single letter. In 1913, a concerned citizen outlined the decline of elk in the state, and the letter precipitated a conservation movement that continues over a century later.

This year Michigan is celebrating the 100-year anniversary of elk returning to Michigan, and also the combined efforts of citizens, sportsmen and conservation groups that have watched over the herd in the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

Elk had been absent from Michigan since 1875, Jeff Van Buren, Michigan’s Regional Director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) explained. “Elk lost habitat through timber decimation, and were probably overhunted.”

During 1914-15, when elk from Yellowstone National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming were being moved around the entire United States — 375 total elk were transported around the country — Michigan, inspired by the letter written two years earlier, began the process of bringing elk back to the Great Lakes State.

In the winter of 1914-15 the U.S. Department of the Interior transported 35 elk from Yellowstone to the lower peninsula. The elk were packed in horse-drawn crated wagons, then moved to railroad shipping yards to make the journey to Houghton Lake.

Historical accounts and newspaper records vary, but according to Brian Mastenbrook, Wildlife Field Operations Manager with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), “[The elk] were held in a pen south of Houghton Lake until 1918.”

The 35 original elk remained in Houghton Lake for three full years, from 1915 to 1918. In 1918, against the backdrop of World War I and the beginnings of the auto industry in Detroit, a movement began to establish elk in the northern lower peninsula in a sustainable way.

Some of the Yellowstone elk were released in Michigan’s Turtle Lake Country, and others that couldn’t be captured were left near Houghton Lake. Seven of the elk were transported to Wolverine, where they seeded the population of what is now the existing herd in the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

Land in Michigan at the time was cut and burned over from the logging industry, but the conifer swamps were still intact, and good for elk — some standing as tall as 5 feet and weighing in at over 600 pounds. Thanks to the elk’s resilience and adaptability to the elements, the herd was able to grow and even thrive during harsh winters.

The numbers grew to over 400 by 1940, and less than two decades later, in 1958, the herd grew to over 1,000. Numbers swelled to around 1,500 in the early 1960s before poaching and loss of habitat took its toll. By the middle of the 1970s numbers dwindled to as low as 200 elk.

Conservation and management efforts continued and numbers climbed again. Today’s elk population on the Pigeon River Country State Forest’s approximately 120,000 contiguous miles of state land, according to DNR estimates, is between 500 and 1,000 animals. Between 100 and 200 licenses are available every year for hunting, to help manage the herd.

Elk aren’t in the clear yet, however. As state representative Triston Cole (105th District), pointed out, new challenges face elk. “It’s essential we protect the herd from chronic wasting disease to ensure another 100 years,” he said.

Conservation efforts remained in place during even the most challenging decades, and continue today thanks in large part to efforts from groups like the DNR, RMEF and Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC).

“Those initiating this project must have known that the arc of this project would last well beyond their lifetime,” Dan Ikenger, Executive Director of MUCC said. “The work that we do in this arena has to be reaffirmed by every generation.”

Photos courtesy of the DNR

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