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100 years since the return of elk to Michigan

Sep 4, 2018

The elk is an important Michigan symbol. It’s even on our state flag. But have you ever seen an elk in the wild in Michigan?  Did you even know there are elk in Michigan?

Michigan elk were wiped out in the 19th century. Clear cutting the forests removed their habitat. Market hunting, that is, hunting to sell the meat to restaurants, butchers, and homes did the rest by about 1875.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Katie Keen.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

"Habitat changed quickly and animals were harvested without any limit because back at that time there were no protections on any type of wildlife,” said Katie Keen with the Department of Natural Resources.

Eventually, some conservationists got together to try to restore elk to Michigan.

“A hundred years ago in 1918 seven elk were brought from the western United States to Michigan," Keen said.

Today there are nearly 1200 elk in and around Pigeon River Country State Forest near Gaylord. (Here's an article from the DNR celebrating the centennial of the return of elk.)

We packed up recording equipment and cameras to search for elk. We had two days.

On the first morning, we ran into Clem Kassuba. He’s an elk hunting guide. He said outside of dawn and dusk, it’s hard to find them. He did know of a place where there would be a better chance of seeing elk than simply waiting around at the roadside observation point.

The DNR tries to manage the elk herd at 500 to 900 animals in order to keep the population within the Pigeon River Country State Forest.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

A hike into the forest led to a little rise which overlooked two large clearings. We would be able to see elk coming from at least two different directions. We set up the equipment and waited. And waited. 

The sun set. Nothing but crickets. No elk on day one. We did see a lot of evidence of elk including hoof prints and elk droppings.

Clem Kassuba, the hunting guide, had told us something that was surprising. He'd never hunted elk himself. 

“Oh, I’m a hunter, but I’ve never hunted elk. I never got a permit yet.”

He applies every year. He has applied for a permit for 35 years. No luck.

There are nearly 50,000 applications for an elk permit each year. Only Michigan residents can apply. A weighted lottery is held for 200 permits. People who've applied over and over again have a better chance. Still, it's the luck of the draw.

Katie Keen says more opportunities are available this year than is traditional because at a population of 1200 the elk are beyond the target of 500 to 900 animals.

“When a population gets too high and it’s not managed, there can be a lot of bad feelings created,” she said.

You know what a deer can do to a garden, right?  Think of an animal two to four times bigger than a deer foraging. Then remember elk gather in herds. They can do a lot of damage to crops. That's why the DNR plants its own crops in the state forest. It's an attempt to keep the elk within the boundaries of the forest.

On day two we met two couples at the observation site by the road. Ed Curran asked what we were up to? They had some cameras with long lenses in the front seat of their Toyota Land Cruiser. Watching elk is a hobby of theirs.

“We’ve been camping over by Pickerell Lake probably for 20 years. About three weeks ago, we saw 14 large bulls in that viewing area," Curran said, adding a little encourgement by saying, “They’re around here. They got to be around here somewhere.”

We set up at dawn. No elk. Searched trails in the woods. No elk.  Set up again at dusk. No elk.

It was time to pack up and head home with no elk sighting.

Just then, something caught our eye. It was getting dark, but looking through the camera's telescopic lens we could see it. An elk! A juvenile, but a real live in the wild Michigan elk. 

We took a lot of photos as the elk grazed along the edge of the forest for about ten minutes. It never got closer than about 150 yards, but it was just nice to finally see one.

If you want to see elk, viewing at the Pigeon River Country State Forest gets better during September and October. Here's a guide put out by the DNR.