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Homecoming: Elk Step Onto Ho-Chunk Lands for First Time in 100 Years

They were driven out more than 100 years ago, but finally the elk are coming home to the Ho-Chunk Nation.

In late August, 23 elk originating from Kentucky were released in Wisconsin’s Black River State Forest—the heart of the Ho-Chunk Nation’s traditional lands—the first step in a longer-term plan to grow the herd in central Wisconsin to about 400 animals. It was a victory not only because of the restoration of a cultural and spiritual icon but also because of the roller-coaster nature of the challenges involved.

“We lost a total of seven animals out of the original twenty six that were transported from Kentucky, but we were also fortunate to have four calves born,” said Karen Sexton, wildlife biologist for the Ho-Chunk Division of Natural Resources.

The mortality was attributed primarily to babesiosis, a tick-borne disease, Sexton said.

“We recognize that mortalities are a risk in a project like this, and we have worked hard to minimize those risks,” Sexton added. “It hasn’t been easy to accept the mortalities, but I will say that a lot has been learned from it, and these animals will continue to be part of an important, ongoing story.”

The animals’ loss hit hard, but it made their return that much more uplifting, tribal leaders said.

“I was saddened to hear about the loss of some of these animals,” said Robert Mann, director of the Ho-Chunk Nation’s Department of Heritage Preservation. “This was a learning experience, and as time passes, the herd will grow stronger and become acclimated to its new environment. In our culture, when an animal passes, it sacrifices itself so that others can live.”

The animals’ mere presence has boosted tribal morale, Sexton said.

“Opening those gates on the twentieth of August, and returning elk to a landscape where they once roamed over 100 years ago, that’s a moment worth celebrating,” Sexton told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It’s amazing that we are already seeing the positive impacts around the community, among tribal members. Tribal enthusiasm for the project is encouraging and validating.”

Gratitude abounded, as well as hope for the future.

“I am thankful to those who are responsible for bringing elk back to our aboriginal lands,” said Elliot Garvin, Deer Clan member and Ho-Chunk Nation Department of Heritage Preservation Language Division representative. “It gives me a good feeling to know that efforts are being made to make things as they once were. Our people are aware that elk once roamed a major part of what we have come to know as Wisconsin. I hope this project helps our younger generations to realize that preservation of our heritage is a priority to us, and that this land can be brought back to the way it once was, in the manner that the Creator meant for it to be.”

Collaboration is what made the elks’ return possible, and enabled Ho-Chunk Nation members to teach modern-day scientists and politicians what they know.

“This project not only benefits the preservation of our heritage, and instills cultural values in our youth, but also gives us an opportunity to share these values with our conservation partners, such as the states of Kentucky and Wisconsin,” said Mann. “This has been a long process, and we learned a lot about each other along the way. I was so happy when we finally opened those gates to let the elk back onto our lands, and I acknowledge that we could not have done this without the strong relationships we have with our partners.”

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