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Once extinct in Michigan, elk are now thriving

A new survey from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shows the elk population in the state is healthy and thriving in the northern Lower Peninsula.

That wasn’t always the case.

Just ten years after Michigan’s state flag was officially adopted, one of its major symbols no longer existed in the state: Eastern elk went extinct here around 1875, thanks to forest clear-cutting and overhunting.

But the Rocky Mountain elk has been back in Michigan for about 100 years, and surveys show a healthy herd.

“Our best estimate is about 1,277,” said biologist Chad Stewart, the DNR’s deer, elk, and moose management specialist. “That's been extremely stable over the last four or five surveys going back to 2016…so we have a very healthy, strong, and seemingly very stable elk herd in our core area.”

DNR staff conducted an eight-day aerial survey early this year, counting and photographing elk over an 1,080 square mile predetermined range. They observed 793 elk in 92 groups and then used population modeling to extrapolate the estimated total herd size, as well as its sex and age ratio. The DNR estimates somewhere between 870 and 1,684 elk in Michigan, about 5% more than two years ago.

Stewart said that the DNR plans to stay its course in managing the elk population, which is primarily centered in the northern Lower Peninsula. Most of Michigan’s elk live in the Gaylord-Wolverine area, with the largest numbers in the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

A tightly restricted annual hunt helps keep elk herds from becoming so dense that they disrupt farmland or cause road accidents. The majestic animals weigh up to 800 pounds and have virtually no natural predators in the Lower Peninsula. But, poaching is also tightly monitored, and the DNR keeps elk habitat in mind in its forest care practices.

“Elk are one of our most intensively managed species,” he said.

All of today’s elk in Michigan are descendants of a small herd reintroduced to the state on private land in 1918. Stewart said the DNR has also examined historical records, including the fossil record, to determine the original range of elk in the state. He said that elk were “fairly widespread throughout most of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula” in precolonial times, but that the DNR could not confirm the extent of their historical presence in the Upper Peninsula.

If you want to see elk in Michigan, Stewart recommended coming to the viewing areas in the Pigeon River Country area and bringing your patience: “It often offers a really good opportunity to get a view if you put enough time and miles in to get to see one.”

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Elizabeth Harlow is an Assistant Producer for Stateside.
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