Wolves Kill a Young Adult Elk

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A predator-prey relationship absent from Wisconsin for more than a century played out last week when a wolf pack attacked, killed and consumed a young adult elk near Clam Lake.

What’s significant about this relationship, state officials say, is that both species, wolves and elk, were once extirpated from Wisconsin -- meaning there were no longer found in the state -- but that populations of both species have now recovered to the point where they can again interact in natural predator-prey relationship.

“I can understand how some people may be concerned that wolves have killed one of the elk we have successfully helped return to the state,” said Scott Hassett, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources “but we’ve lost four of them to bears. As a conservationist, I recognize that our management efforts have helped restore a lost piece of our state’s natural heritage. Predator-prey relationships are a basic foundation of a natural ecosystem, and this incident is actually a sign of the growth and health of this ecosystem.”

This is the first time since the elk herd’s reintroduction in 1995 that wolves killed an adult-sized elk, though wolves are believed to have killed three elk calves in 1999, according to Laine Stowell, the DNR elk biologist at Hayward.. The elk killed this month had an attached radio transmitter that began emitting a “mortality signal” sometime last week, indicating the collar had not moved in at least a day. Stowell found the collar and the remains of the 450- to 500-hundred pound elk on August 14 in a wetland area near Noble Lake.

“The remains showed typical signs of wolf predation and we found the pack’s tracks leading to the kill site,” Stowell said. “With the growing elk herd and several wolf packs in the area we’ve known for years that we might lose a few elk to wolves.”

In addition to the elk killed by bear and wolves, nine others have been killed by vehicles, two were accidentally shot and others that have died from a variety of natural causes, Stowell said.

Stowell said the 2-year-old bull was at a vulnerable age where he would be adjusting to between hanging out with the cows to being accepted in a bachelor group. Other elk had been in the area where the kill took place.

The elk was most likely killed by a pack known as the Ghost Lake wolf pack, which during the most recent winter surveys was estimated at three to five wolves, according to Adrian Wydeven, DNR wolf biologist at park Falls.

“None of the wolves in this pack are radio-collared, so our information on the pack and their movement is somewhat limited,” he said. “We do have two other packs nearby with radio-collared wolves in them and neither of these packs have been detected in this area west of Clam Lake.”

Elk had historically been most abundant in southern and west-central portions of Wisconsin where they were associated with grassland/forest edges, open woodlands, and oak openings. Records indicate that elk were present in 50 of the state’s 72 counties. But over-hunting led to the extirpation of elk in Wisconsin in the mid to late 1800s

In 1993 the Wisconsin State Legislature authorized the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to evaluate the potential for reintroducing elk. In 1995, 25 elk were trapped from a Michigan herd, and after undergoing rigorous disease testing, were released near Clam Lake. Management responsibility of the herd was transferred from the university to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in May 1999. That herd has since grown to about 120 animals.

Gray wolves, also called timber wolves, occurred throughout Wisconsin prior to European settlement. Those new settlers perceived wolves as a menace to livestock, and the state legislature instituted a bounty in 1865. The last Wisconsin wolf was killed in 1959.

In 1973 wolves were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Minnesota wolf population began expanding and eventually wolves began to migrate back into Wisconsin on their own, with a wolf pack discovered in the border area between Wisconsin and Minnesota south of Duluth-Superior in 1975. The state’s wolf population is now estimated at about 335 animals in approximately 94 packs in northern and central Wisconsin.