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Elk Returning to Ho-Chunk Lands a Century After Being Driven Out

Elk are being reintroduced by the Ho-Chunk Nation into Wisconsin, where the animals roamed abundantly until being driven out in the 1800s.

Elk once roamed Wisconsin, a native species. But they were driven out in the 1800s by overhunting and the habitat loss associated with the conversion of native prairie to farmland.

But they are starting to come back, thanks to an initiative initiative to import up to 150 wild elk from Kentucky over the next three to five years, said Karen Sexton, wildlife biologist for the Ho-Chunk Nation. So far, 26 elk have been transported from Kentucky to Wisconsin to be held in an acclimation pen before being released into east central Wisconsin’s Black River State Forest sometime early this summer. This marks the beginning of an effort to expand an existing elk herd in northern Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and reestablish a new herd farther south in Jackson County, in Wisconsin’s prairie-forest border region, and in the heart of the Ho-Chunk Nation’s lands.

“The disappearance of this species from Wisconsin was a big loss for the Ho-Chunk Nation,” said Robert Mann, director of the Ho-Chunk Nation Department of Heritage Preservation. “We have an Elk Clan, one of the twelve clans, each clan has a certain traditional responsibilities within the Nation.”

According to Mann, Hawk Clan, elk were historically very important to the Ho-Chunk Nation as a source of sustenance and life.

“Beyond the value of the restoration itself, this is a powerful opportunity to share the history of our people and to demonstrate the value we place on stewarding the lands provided to us by the creator,” said Mann, noting that a private ceremony had conducted prior to the elks’ arrival at the Black River State Forest acclimation pen. “This was done not only to thank the Creator and pray for the survival of these animals, but also to instill our values in the younger generations.”

The project has been under way for quite some time, Mann said.

“Restoring elk to our aboriginal lands has been years in the making,” Mann told Indian Country Today Media Network. In 1995, 25 Michigan elk were released in the Clam Lake region of far northern Wisconsin, an area deemed low in the potential for conflict with agriculture. This herd, which mostly roams on National Forest land in 1842 Treaty ceded territory, now numbers about 160 animals.

At the time of the 1995 release, plans had been made to establish another herd of elk in the area of Black River State Forest. These plans hit a roadblock in 2002, however, when chronic wasting disease showed up in Wisconsin’s deer population. The detection of this devastating illness caused state officials to halt importation of elk and other members of the deer family to help curb its spread, effectively ending plans to establish a herd farther to the south.

Circumstances changed in 2013, however. According to Sexton, who sits on the Wisconsin Natural Resources department’s Elk Advisory Committee, Governor Scott Walker included language in the 2013–15 state budget that relaxed restrictions for elk importation if the animals are sourced from a wild population and if disease precautions are taken.

“This reopened the door for restoration of elk in the Black River State Forest,” said Sexton.

According to Kevin Wallenfang, big game ecologist for the natural resources department, the long-term goal now is to establish a herd of 1,400 elk in the Clam Lake area and a herd of up to 400 animals in the Black River State Forest area. While all of the animals remaining in the acclimation pen in Black River Falls State Forest will be released on-site, the intent is also to release animals that will intermingle with the Clam Lake herd in future years. Kentucky will provide all of the animals to establish both of these herds. According to Will Bowling, elk program biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of the main reasons for using Kentucky elk is that wasting disease has never been detected in that state’s herd. Though the illness has never been found in the Kentucky herd, Bowling stressed that all of the animals relocated from that state will undergo quarantine and testing for it and other diseases.

Bowling describes the sharing of Kentucky’s elk herd as “paying it forward.” Bowling noted that Kentucky received the animals that formed the foundation of its herd, now numbering 10,000 animals, in partnership, and says it is a no-brainer to share elk with other states like Wisconsin that wish to reestablish the animal.

For the time being the elk in the acclimation pen are being monitored after five of them died of acute Babesiosis, a tick-borne disease, the officials are assuming they contracted when bitten by ticks in Wisconsin, according to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.

"It's shocking to lose five animals in so short a time,” said Kurt Flack, a Wisconsin representative of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, one of the initiative’s main backers, to the Journal Sentinel. “But we realize things like this can happen, and we maintain our support for bringing more elk to Wisconsin."

In exchange for the elk, Wallenfang pointed out, Wisconsin is providing consultation to Kentucky on the creation of grouse habitat.

“Otherwise, the reintroduction effort is being funded solely through tribal and private stakeholders such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Jackson County Wildlife Fund and the Ho-Chunk Nation, which together have pledged about $600,000 for the project,” said Sexton.

Wallenfang praised the depth of the partnerships that have formed in this effort. He emphasized the solid relationships that Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has built with its counterpart in Kentucky, and with the Ho-Chunk Nation. Wallenfang also credited the Jackson County Wildlife Fund, a local conservation organization, for securing critical local support for the initiative. Allen (“Jake”) Jacobson, Jackson County Wildlife Fund’s president, noted that his organization had been thinking of this project ever since the reintroduction of elk into the Clam Lake area further north. A proud Jacobson characterizes this as “our signature project.”

Like Robert Mann, Karen Sexton and Jonathan Gilbert, the Wildlife Section Leader for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), also called attention to the cultural values of this initiative. Sexton said she appreciates the opportunity to work with other resource managers who have not worked with tribes in the past. Bowling said that this, his first opportunity to work with a tribe, was eye-opening.

“Not only do I have respect for the capacity that tribal resource managers bring to an effort such as this, but I also like the idea of these animals going to a place where they will be valued culturally,” Bowling told Indian Country Today Media Network. “This adds a dimension I have not had the fortune of experiencing before.”

As a tribal employee, Sexton said, she values the opportunity to be part of returning a species that was once part of the Ho-Chunk Nation’s tribal culture. She notes that this is not only an opportunity to infuse Ho-Chunk values into the project, but also to help expose state agencies to the resource management capacity that tribes offer as partners.

Jonathan Gilbert, the wildlife section leader for GLIFWC, which manages off-reservation natural resources on behalf of 11 Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, agreed. He described different but equally important contributions made by the tribes he represents in northern Wisconsin.

Gilbert says that although the Ojibwe tribes have not contributed funds directly to this project as the Ho-Chunk Nation has, Wisconsin has historically allocated a portion of Ojibwe tribal gaming tax revenue to elk management. In addition, Gilbert serves with Sexton on Wisconsin’s Elk Advisory Committee.

Gilbert emphasizes that the Ojibwe have given in traditional ways as well. Welcoming ceremonies have been held since the inception of the elk reintroduction efforts, including a traditional pipe ceremony prior to the original release of elk into the Clam Lake area, and the ceremonial harvest of a young bull elk in 2012, Gilbert said. Such ceremonies pay respect to the animals and express gratitude to the connection of this one species to the larger ecosystem.

Gilbert said he hopes that as the Clam Lake and Jackson County herds grow, tribal and non-tribal resource managers integrate the ecosystem values expressed in tribal ceremonies into the overall management of this restored species. Gilbert noted that in its early stages, these small herds must be the focus of management in what he refers to as a “featured species program.” However, Gilbert said he hopes that as time passes, these herds will grow to be considered just another self-sustaining denizen of Wisconsin’s prairies and forests, managed within the framework of these broader systems.

Douglas Thompson is a Duluth-based attorney focused on assisting with natural resource and environmental issues in Indian Country.