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Poaching rattles Up North towns after elk's comeback

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Gaylord — The distinct bugle cry of the majestic elk is a reassuring sound of the call of the wild for many who live in and around the expansive yet remote woods of Pigeon River Country.

The elusive mammal, once native to Michigan, disappeared from the landscape by the late 19th century. Reintroduced in the Pigeon River Country State Forest a few decades later, the herd has flourished. Today, 900 to 1,300 elk roam the fields and hardwood forests of a region a Michigan conservationist once called “The Big Wild.”

But a recent spate of elk poaching in the 105,000-acre state forest has rattled residents of these communities, as well as outdoor enthusiasts and the state Department of Natural Resources, which manages the herd with food plants and limited hunts in late summer and early fall.

Elks are “not aggressive,” said the DNR’s Brian Mastenbrook. “They try to avoid people ... They’re a more secretive animal.”

In early December, three female elk — or cows — were found shot dead in a snowy field in a far-flung section of the forest, east of Vanderbilt in Otsego County.

Their killings came on the heels of the poaching of two males — or bulls — in November. They were discovered elsewhere in the forest, the largest contiguous swath of undeveloped land in the lower peninsula, six to eight miles from the females.

In all, eight Michigan elk were illegally shot in 2019, not a record number but an alarming one, especially because of the three females found at one time, DNR officials said.

“People are upset. It’s the buzz in the community, especially the outdoor community,” said Casey Buckleitner, the owner of White Birch Outfitters in downtown Gaylord. “We just celebrated the 100th anniversary of the elk coming back from being hunted into extinction here. It’s a big deal.”

In their investigation, DNR officials are analyzing data collected at the scenes. The three other killings occurred during deer firearms season in November and were deemed accidental. The hunters turned themselves in and face reduced fines for cooperating with authorities. 

The penalties for elk poaching include at least a $5,000 fine per elk, suspension of hunting privileges for up to 10 years and up to 180 days in jail, DNR officials said.

“What pushed us over the edge was the killing of three cows in December,” said Lt. James Gorno, the DNR’s law enforcement supervisor in the Gaylord district who is overseeing the poaching investigation. “We may be one or two animals over the norm. It’s still sickening, and it is alarming. It doesn’t matter what the number is in a particular year — it’s still poaching.”

'They kind of just stand there'

Because the bulls were discovered during deer hunting season, investigators have not ruled out the possibility that they were mistakenly shot by hunters as well. One was a “beautiful mature elk,” with six points on one side of his rack and seven on the other, Gorno said. The other was a younger bull, with three points on one side of his rack and four on the other. 

It’s not unusual, he said, for deer hunters to mistake an elk for a deer. Sometimes, hunters who have a permit for a female elk accidentally shoot a bull because they did not see the male’s spikes, he said. 

“Not everyone is a seasoned hunter,” said Gorno, noting the DNR requires hunters who receive elk hunting licenses to attend an orientation program meeting to learn about the history of the herd, biology, laws and laws commonly broken during hunts and the fines involved. 

Elk are about three to four times the size of deer. A large adult male weighs 600 to 800 pounds; an adult female ranges from 300 to 450 pounds.

“Elk are different than deer. They don’t react when you shoot them. They don’t take off like a deer. They kind of just stand there. They don’t know what hit them,” Gorno said. “A hunter can get confused with what he shot. He shoots again because they’re not falling, they’re not running. He thinks he missed. That’s how we have multiple elk kills.”

Elk are about three to four times the size of deer. A large adult male weighs 600 to 800 pounds; an adult female ranges from 300 to 450 pounds.

The home range for a male is about 35 square miles; females, about 25 square miles, said Brian Mastenbrook, a DNR wildlife field operations manager. 

“They’re not aggressive,” Mastenbrook said. “They try to avoid people. ... They’re a more secretive animal.”

The females that were shot were discovered in a more accessible area of the forest, which extends into four counties in north-central Michigan. They were among a herd of about 20 elk bedding in the field.

They would have been visible for someone driving by along a two-track, Gorno said. One of them never left its bed; the other two ran a short distance after being shot.

“We are not sure if someone is sending a message or it was drive-by shooting,” Gorno said. “Sometimes, we think someone is just mad and wants to kill things.”

Investigators are still in the “evidence-gathering stage" and putting together possible search warrants, he said. 

“Normally during an elk shooting investigation, we have a 50% or higher success rate on convictions,” Gorno said.

Demise, rise of the elk

Michigan’s native elk became extinct by the late 1800s, victims of overhunting and habitat destruction. In 1918, seven Rocky Mountain elk were reintroduced near Wolverine in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. Their numbers grew to about 1,500 by the early 1960s. Limited hunting was allowed in 1964 and 1965.

Their numbers fluctuated over the next two decades, but as the herd grew, the damage to forests and farmlands increased. Elk hunting resumed in 1984. The DNR issues 100 hundred elk hunting licenses a year through a lottery. There are thousands of applicants. 

Today, Michigan’s elk herd is among the largest east of the Mississippi River.

The intent of the state’s elk herd management plan is more about providing public viewing opportunities than hunting, Gorno said. The DNR plants food plots deep in the Pigeon River Country State Forest to bring elk together for public viewing. Hunting occurs to keep the population in check and prevent damage to farmlands.

The elk are a source of local pride. 

Atlanta bills itself as the Elk Capital of Michigan and hosts an annual Elk Festival every September. Vanderbilt is home to the Elkhorn Grill and Tavern. And the state’s blue-and-white “Elk Viewing” directional signs are dispersed along Gaylord’s main roads; the city also maintains a fenced 108-acre park with a herd of about 70 elk.

While poaching was once rampant, with the need for food to feed families as part of the motivation, illegal shooting today is more recreational or opportunity related. "People see big antlers and want to shoot,” Gorno said.

“The community and the people up here value this resource. They don’t want to see poaching happen. This is a black eye.”

A big draw

About 400,000 people visit the Gaylord area each year, many of them attracted to outdoor activities and wildlife viewing. In a recent survey of visitors, tourism officials found out that 60% of the respondents indicated viewing elk or the possibility of viewing elk was important to them.

“We were blown away. We thought it was important, but we really didn’t realize by just how much,” said Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord Area Convention and Tourism Bureau.

They even draw tourists from outside Michigan. The Michigan State University College of Agriculture and Natural Resources is studying the economic and recreational benefits of the state’s elk herd. 

“When things like poaching happen, people get really upset,” Beachnau said.

At the Elkhorn Grill and Tavern in Vanderbilt, the most popular menu item is the elk burger, served medium rare with grilled onions.

The penalties for elk poaching include at least a $5,000 fine per elk, suspension of hunting privileges for up to 10 years and up to 180 days in jail, DNR officials said.

“We get a lot of elk tourists,” said owner Jim Ormsbee, who opened the tavern several years ago and works as a local elk guide for hunters and snowmobilers. “... Most people have never seen one in the wild and when they do, it’s a thrill. Snowmobilers can’t believe you can ride within 20 feet of them.”

While the buzz about the poachings has quieted down, Ormsbee said people are still upset.

“Everybody is pissed because they shot and left them. Nobody has a problem with shooting them and eating them,” he said. “If you’re gonna shoot it, eat it. ... Otherwise, let it go.”

Poaching facts

The Safari Club International-Michigan Involvement Committee is offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who provides information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for killing the elk. To report information on the illegal killing of elk, call or text the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Report All Poaching hotline at (800) 292-7800.

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer.