Elk calves dying in Wisconsin – 07/08/2005

  • October 30, 2013 at 1:15 am #816


    By Jim Lee
    For Central Wisconsin Sunday
    CLAM LAKE – Wisconsin’s fledgling elk herd should be expanding

    But it’s not.

    Laine Stowell, Department of Natural Resources elk biologist at
    Hayward, thinks a few residents of the Clam Lake area are indirectly
    and unintentionally killing elk with kindness through artificial

    “There’s something unusual happening here,” Stowell said.

    Following the calving season in 2004, the elk herd was estimated at
    123 animals. This year, after the birth of 25 to 30 calves, the herd
    estimate is 125.

    Uncommonly high mortality is the ultimate reason for the lack of

    “The elk program began in 1995,” Stowell said. “During the first nine
    years, we lost an average of four elk per year. In the past year, we
    lost 14 animals (that were verified). We estimate 20 or 21 elk died.”
    The bulk of those verified losses, he contends, can be linked to the
    effect of artificial feeding.

    Elk are native to Wisconsin but hunting and the impact of settlement
    eliminated them from the state by the late 1800s. After several early
    attempts to re-establish elk failed, the DNR obtained 25 elk from
    Michigan in 1995 and released them in an area surrounding Clam Lake
    in Ashland, Bayfield and Sawyer counties.

    Until the past year, the size of the herd slowly but steadily had
    been building. The latest turn of events worries Stowell.

    He contends of the 14 documented elk losses in the past year, 10 can
    be tied to feeding, including liver fluke infestations (3), drowning
    (3), vehicle collision (2) and brain worm disease (2).

    The remaining four elk deaths were attributed to wolves (2), bear (1)
    and cow elk stepping on calf (1).

    Under normal circumstances, a bout with liver flukes or brain worms
    usually is not fatal to elk, Stowell said, though either infestation
    can be lethal if the volume of the parasites involved is high.

    Both liver flukes and brain worm parasites are transmitted by snails
    (or slugs) through a cycle that includes feces and vegetation. Elk
    and deer become infected by eating infected vegetation, typically
    near a shoreline or aquatic environment, and spread the disease
    through their feces.

    “During the first nine years, we didn’t see any elk mortality
    attributed to liver flukes,” Stowell said, “and we’d seen only one
    verified case of brain worm.”

    Stowell believes artificial feeding concentrates deer and elk, their
    feces and the potential for spreading disease at a much greater than
    normal level.

    A feeding site alongside a river led to the three elk drowning deaths
    and a similar site near a highway led to the two vehicle deaths, he

    Of 17 elk calves found and collared with radio-transmitters this
    summer, two subsequently died.

    “They weighed 17 to 18 pounds,” Stowell said. “That’s half the birth
    weight of a normal Clam Lake elk calf. They weren’t vigorous enough
    to survive.”

    He suspects cow elk that gave birth to the underweight calves were
    feeling the effects of liver flukes, which tend to take their
    heaviest toll on elk health during the winter months. A weakened cow
    can be expected to produce a weaker calf.

    “We think (through educational efforts) we can get many people to
    cease feeding voluntarily but we have had cases where we’ve pointed
    out the hazards of feeding on elk, and people just continued to
    feed,” Stowell said.

    Stowell said he is aware of 13 feeding operations that have attracted
    elk. Four are responsible for most of the vehicle collisions and
    seven “are major risks” for spring ice-out drownings.

    “I wouldn’t be surprised if actual cases are double the ones I know,”
    he said.

    With the future of the elk herd imperiled, “we may seek rule changes
    so that we can regulate feeding within the Clam Lake elk range,”
    Stowell said.

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