A wildlife management success
When hunters take to the northern Lower Peninsula fields and forests on Aug. 26 for the opening day of the 2008 elk season, they'll be participating in a wildlife management milestone: the 25th consecutive year of elk hunting in Michigan.
"That's the way wildlife management is supposed to work," said Brian Mastenbrook, wildlife biologist at the Department of Natural Resources' Gaylord field office.
Indeed, since modern-day elk hunting was reestablished in Michigan in 1984, more than a million applications have been submitted, 5,310 licenses have been issued and hunters have taken 4,520 elk.
That's not bad, considering the animals were completely eliminated from the state a little more than a century ago.
Elk, which were indigenous to the Lower Peninsula - there is inconclusive evidence they existed in the Upper Peninsula - disappeared by 1877. Conservation officials made several unsuccessful attempts to reestablish elk in the state. But in 1918, seven Rocky Mountain elk released near Wolverine in Cheboygan County flourished. Those elk became the basis for the herd we have today.
As the elk herd grew, the animals expanded their range. Although a tourism industry grew up around viewing the approximately 1,200-1,500 animals in the herd in the early 1960s, conflicts arose. Farmers, foresters and deer hunters complained the elk were having a negative impact on the area. The legislature authorized the conservation department to hold limited, controlled elk hunts during a two-year period.
In 1964, 23,000 hunters applied for 300 licenses for the Dec. 5-13 elk hunt. Hunting conditions were ideal with good tracking snow, and the 298 hunters enjoyed a 90% success rate, killing 269 legal elk. The following year, some 35,000 hunters applied for 300 licenses for the Dec. 8-16 hunt. Weather was mild with almost no snow. The success rate fell to 61% with 183 elk killed.
The hunts, unfortunately, coincided with a decline in suitable elk habitat and increased real estate development in the area. The openings and young forests the elk had been released into 50 years earlier had matured, reducing food availability. Combined with increased human activity, including numerous incidents of poaching, the herd suffered. The population fell until there were only about 200 elk remaining in Michigan by the winter of 1975.
In the late 1970s, more public attention again was focused on the elk herd, in part because of the controversy surrounding oil and gas development in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. The Concept of Management for the Pigeon River Country adopted in 1973 and the Elk Management Plan of 1984 both identified improving habitat as a priority. Improved habitat along with the success of a concentrated effort by the Law Enforcement Division to reduce poaching allowed the elk herd to rebuild. By 1984, the herd was estimated at 850 animals, near the current-day management goal for the herd.
That year, the DNR held an elk season with some 45,908 hunters applying for 50 licenses for the sixday, Dec. 11-16 elk hunt. The following year, a record 52,658 applicants sought 120 licenses.
Elk seasons continued to run for six days until 1988, when the season was expanded to eight days; then it was adjusted annually, set for either six or eight days. For the most part, the hunts were held in December, though there were some experimental October hunts some years. The number of available licenses fluctuated from a low of 80 (1989) to a high of 155 (1991).
But the elk herd continued to grow and expand its range, causing increasing conflicts with humans. In 1992, the DNR began holding hunts in September in addition to what has now become known as the "traditional" December hunt.
The earlier hunts were designed to take elk that had dispersed from the desired home range on state forest land and were causing conflicts with landowners. It also gave hunters the opportunity to take advantage of elk bugling - the calling that bulls do during the breeding season.
By 1997, the DNR issued 355 elk licenses. In 2000, when elk numbers were very high, a record 410 licenses were available.
In 2001, the DNR began to experiment with an even earlier elk season; an August hunt intended to take animals on agricultural lands where crop damage had occurred. Hunters who drew licenses for this early hunt period also had an opportunity to hunt during September, during bugling, and the Natural Resources Commission approved a week-long contingency season for January in the event the harvest was considered unsatisfactory for management purposes.
This year, more than 40,000 hunters applied for one of the 330 elk licenses available for Michigan's 25th consecutive elk hunting season, an increase from the last several years. Using new census techniques, DNR wildlife managers estimate the elk population numbered approximately 1,200 in January of 2008. With an established goal for a post-season population of 800 to 900 elk in the winter herd, even a 100% success rate this season would result in a herd that remains within the desired population goal.
Elk hunting in Michigan is a rare opportunity. For the individual fortunate enough to draw a license for any elk - which allows them to take a bull - he or she may not apply again; it truly is a oncein a-lifetime opportunity. Hunters who draw an antlerless license are ineligible to apply for an elk license for 10 years.
The December hunt, Dec. 9-16, has taken on a festive atmosphere as numerous visitors come to Atlanta, the headquarters of the December hunt, to see what the elk hunters have taken.
"With our herd significantly larger than our winter population goal, hunters will have an excellent opportunity to take an elk this season," said Rod Clute, DNR big-game specialist. "We look forward to many more years of elk hunting opportunity in Michigan and are proud to have provided elk hunting for Michigan residents for the last 25 years. This is a wildlife management success story."
(Editor's note: This article was provided by the DNR as part of its "Showcasing the DNR" program.)