Five Wisconsin elk hunters filled their tags during Wisconsin’s third managed elk season in the fall of 2020. The season marked 25 years since the reintroduction and management of elk began in the state.
The five state-licensed hunters formed a strong bond and worked together toward a successful hunt. In order to stay safe during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the group used online chats and social media to discuss plans for the hunt and to encourage each other for the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“This wasn’t a typical season for this year’s elk hunters, so they got creative,” said Josh Spiegel, DNR wildlife biologist at Hayward. “Each of the five hunters had unique experiences, but all ended the same with the harvest of a beautiful Wisconsin bull elk.”
There were many highlights to the 2020 elk hunt, including the first elk ever harvested in the Clam Lake Elk Range’s southern lobe, a 502-square-mile area of the Flambeau River State Forest added in 2012.
One of the bulls harvested was also the first game animal ever harvested by one of the five hunters selected.
“Starting your hunting career by harvesting a bull elk on a tag is a pretty incredible experience,” Spiegel said. “Not only were all the hunters rewarded for their hard work, but very grateful for their experience, too.”
The Clam Lake Elk Range covers 1,620 square miles and reaches into portions of Ashland, Bayfield, Price, Rusk and Sawyer counties. The original herd began with 25 Michigan elk, released in 1995. In 2014 and 2015, 26 Wisconsin elk were released in the expanded range using an assisted dispersal process. In addition, 92 Kentucky translocated elk were released in 2017 and 2019 on the Flambeau River State Forest. In all, the Clam Lake Elk Range had a 2020 population estimate of about 300.
For various reasons, members of the Ojibwe tribes did not harvest an elk during the 2020 season with the five tags allocated. Over the previous two years, Ojibwe tribal members filled their five-bull annual quota, while the DNR tag holders filled nine of their 10 possible tags over the same timeframe.
Following a three-month application period, the DNR selected four hunters at random from a pool of about 28,000 applicants. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) awarded the fifth state-issued tag through their fundraising raffle. The RMEF chose a winner from almost 1,600 applicants.
For each $10 application fee, $7 is earmarked for elk management, habitat and research in Wisconsin. All of the RMEF raffle proceeds are earmarked specifically for elk management in Wisconsin. The 2021 elk hunt application period is expected to take place March 1 through May 31.
With an eye on the present and future health of the Clam Lake omashkooz (elk) herd, GLIFWC member tribes declared five bull elk for the 2020 season but chose a more conservative harvest approach out of concern for the population. To date, the tribes have not harvested any elk from the Clam Lake herd for the 2020 season.
The decision to limit hunting is rooted in heeding the best available science and an abundance of caution for the long-term success of elk, known as omashkooz in the Ojibwe language.
“We have been a part of elk restoration work for many years, and we want to see omashkooz populations thrive again,” said GLIFWC Voigt Intertribal Task Force Chairman John Johnson Sr. ”The best way we will achieve this is if we listen to the advisory committee that was established to help us follow the best available science. We are always thinking of future generations to come.”
In the spring of 2020, the Wisconsin Elk Advisory Committee recommended a safe harvest quota of six bull elk, based upon the most recent data and management goals. Comprised of biologists with the U.S. Forest Service, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Ho Chunk Nation and GLIFWC, as well as other partners.
The Elk Advisory Committee meets regularly and is tasked with making recommendations on the reintroduction and management of wild elk.
Following the recommendation, however, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board overturned the committee’s decision and chose to enact a quota of 10 bull elk. Elk Advisory Committee member and GLIFWC wildlife biologist Travis Bartnick said their original recommendation was based upon multiple factors.
“Maximizing herd growth and maintaining an appropriate sex ratio of adult bulls to cows have both been objectives agreed upon by the members of the committee,” Bartnick said. “The committee also agreed that reducing the bull elk quota in2020 would help prevent the need to recommend a reduced quota in subsequent years. There was support for this recommendation based on population model projections under different harvest scenarios.”
Ojibwe Tribes exercise their sovereign rights under their own rules and regulations to harvest half of each year’s allowable quota. In 2018, population estimates indicated omashkooz had achieved a harvestable population in the Wisconsin Ceded Territory. This allowed the state and the tribes to begin a limited hunt, in which the state and tribes successfully harvested elk from the Clam Lake omashkooz range.
Ojibwe tribes have been elk reintroduction partners since 1995 with the goal of restoring the population to sustainable levels. The continuation of these efforts from all partners involved will hopefully lead to future harvesting opportunities for both State and Tribal hunters.
The Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission is an intertribal agency consisting of 11 member Ojibwe bands located throughout Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. GLIFWC works with member bands to both manage and preserve off-reservation treaty reserved rights and resources. For more information, visit www.glifwc.org.