October 30, 2013 at 1:15 am #816MikeKeymaster
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
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
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,”
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,”
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