Jackson County (WQOW) - One year ago this month, elk were released into the wild in Jackson County for the first time elk since the 1800's. The project has not come without some controversy.
63 elk now roam 190,000 acres of the Jackson County Forest and the Black River State Forest.
"We know elk were present here, historically, and in good numbers actually," said Scott Roepke, DNR Wildlife Biologist.
Prior to 1995, the animals had not been seen in the state since the mid to late 1800s.
"They were extirpated as a direct result of human settlement in the area through over hunting and habitat loss," said Roepke.
Besides wanting to bring back a native species, DNR Biologist Scott Roepke said another reason to re-establish the elk herd, is the future possibility of hunting, once the herd reaches 150 animals.
"At our current population it would take at least 8 or 10 years to reach that goal," said Roepke. Folks will come from all over the state as well as surrounding states they're coming into the community, staying at hotels, eating at restaurants, buying gas."
But, while elk are majestic, they have also been nomadic, and that has many cranberry growers in the area concerned about damage.
"Not only the elk necessarily browsing on the vines and the fruits themselves, but elk like to wallow. They like to dig areas to lay down in," said Tom Lochner, Executive Director, Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Assn.
Tom Lochner is Executive Director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. It's a $1-billion a year industry. Jackson County ranks second in the state for cranberry production and crop damage is a big concern.
"I mean within a week of the release of the animals from the pen they were showing up on cranberry marshes," said Lochner.
Lochner said his group had expressed concerns to the DNR over the ten year planning process, to little avail.
"We told them that was going to happen and to have a plan to deal with it and I think they were surprised at how quickly it happened and that they were unprepared for it," said Lochner.
Lochner said since then, the DNR has been very responsive, offering free elk proof fences to growers within the elk range. But, the elk have been wandering outside the 320 square mile elk zone where the DNR will only cover 75% of the cost of fencing. However, farmers there are eligible for damage reimbursement, and the DNR has trapped or tranquilized wandering elk and brought them back to Jackson county.
Another complaint, the decision to put the elk in an area that contains seven or eight wolf packs.
"We do receive criticism that we're just bringing elk here to feed the predators on the landscape," said Roepke.
Wolves have killed six of the elk so far, but Roepke says in the end, wolves and elk with have to co-exist, like they did in the past. And he said they expect the elk herd to grow to a point where it won't be a problem.
Roepke said the five-year elk plan for Jackson County and Northern Wisconsin has a $500,000 budget. Roepke said 95% of that cost is covered by private contributions from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Jackson County Wildlife Fund, the Ho-Chunk Nation, and other donors.
Roepke said so far, they're happy with the project's progress. But, he said there are still a lot of unknowns, so it's hard to predict where the project will be ten or twenty years from now. Their goal is a herd of 390 elk.