Retired conservation officers share story of one of last known elk to roam southwest Michigan
As hunters get ready for northern Michigan’s next elk season, running today through Sept. 16, a look back at the state’s rich elk history paints a picture of population decline and resurgence – along with a story about what likely was one of the last elk to be found in southwest Michigan.
The presence of elk in Michigan dates to the 1800s, when the majestic, antlered animals roamed the state. By 1875, though, after years of unregulated harvest and a lack of quality habitat, Michigan’s wild elk population was considered extinct. Michigan reintroduced elk to the landscape in 1918, bringing seven wild elk from the western United States to Wolverine, Michigan. Since then, elk – with the 2017 elk survey showing numbers exceeding 1,000 – have stayed mainly in northern Michigan.
However, two retired conservation officers can point to personal experience with an elk-poaching investigation in southwest Michigan, as recently as the 1970s.
On Nov. 29, 1973, Evart (Bob) Robinson, a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer assigned to patrol Cass County, received a complaint from a farmer near the village of Cassopolis. The farmer said that a man had poached an elk on the farmer’s land. Robinson called partner Walt Mikula, a fellow CO who patrolled Berrien County, to assist him with the carcass.
Through his work, Robinson became familiar with the history of the area. He shared that during the 1920s, before there were cervid regulations, there was a rumor about a wealthy dentist who kept several elk captive.
Where those elk came from and how the dentist obtained them is unknown, since animal transportation laws were non-existent at the time. Robinson had heard that the elk either escaped or the dentist released them, and that 50 to 100 elk had roamed the undeveloped land around Cass County. By the early 1970s, though, Robinson said there were rumored to be just a few elk left in the area, mostly due to poaching, roadkill and habitat loss.
Robinson and Mikula met with the farmer, who took the officers to the poached female elk in a nearby field. The officers collected several shotgun shells and inspected the carcass. Finding evidence of a bullet entry, Robinson borrowed Mikula’s brand-new Olsen pocketknife to extract the bullet.
“As a new conservation officer, I was earning $3.25 per hour,” Mikula said. “I saved enough money to purchase the $7 pocketknife, and now it’s considered a vintage item.” Olsen knives are no longer made but can be found on online auction sites for up to $200.
As the case’s lead officer, Robinson received an anonymous tip about a suspect. He then questioned the man on several occasions, hearing denials each time.
“The suspect knew Robinson had the shotgun shells and would be able to match the shotgun to the extractor marks,” Mikula said. He later would learn – from the original tipster – that the suspect attempted to get rid of the evidence by driving to South Bend, Indiana, selling the original shotgun to a dealer and purchasing a new firearm.
When Robinson served the man with a search warrant, he produced his recently purchased firearm. Armed with the tipster’s information about the trip to Indiana, Robinson’s questioning of the man this time led to a full confession.
On March 18, 1974, the poacher was sentenced in Michigan’s 4th District Court, Cass County. Judge Steg Lignell, a strong advocate for the state’s natural resources, revoked the man’s hunting license and assessed him fines, costs and reimbursement for the elk. In addition, he was sentenced to several weekends in jail and ordered to return to Indiana and repurchase the original shotgun, which was forfeited by the state, along with the bogus shotgun that was originally presented to Robinson.
Throughout the remainder of Robinson’s career, he used that poached elk’s hide – measuring almost 6 feet wide – as part of a fur kit to teach children about the different animals found in Michigan. The 46-year-old hide is now on display at the DNR Customer Service Center in Plainwell, Michigan, preserving a piece of the region’s elk history. Mikula recently donated his Olsen knife and an original photo to accompany the hide, too.
Robinson served the DNR for 29 years, working in the Parks and Recreation Division and then as a conservation officer. He retired in 1994 as a sergeant in the Bay City area and currently lives in Williamston. Mikula began his career as a conservation officer in 1971, retiring in 2005 as a lieutenant in the Roscommon area. He and his wife now live in Roscommon.
Michigan offered its first elk hunt in 1964 and again in 1965. By 1975, recognizing elk as an important natural resource, the state created its first elk management plan. Annual elk hunts have been carefully managed since the 1980s. The elk management plan was updated in 2012, increasing the population goal to 500-900 elk. The most recent elk survey in January 2017 reported 1,100 elk located in the elk range near the Pigeon River Country State Forest.
Today is the first day of Michigan’s second elk hunt of the year, followed by a third hunt Sept. 27-30. During the first hunt (Aug. 27-30), hunters took 35 elk. The August and September hunts target elk that have moved outside of the core area and into agriculture fields. The hunt’s second period takes place Dec. 14-22 and allows hunters to hunt in the core elk zone.
Every year, thousands of Michigan residents apply for an elk tag, which permits a set number of hunters to target this controlled-population species. In 2019, 200 Michigan residents received elk tags. Read more about Michigan elk at Michigan.gov/Elk.
The DNR values tips from the public regarding natural resources crimes. If you witness or suspect a natural resources violation, call or text the DNR’s Report All Poaching hotline, available 24/7, at 800-292-7800. Learn more about Michigan’s conservation officers at Michigan.gov/ConservationOfficers.