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"RETURN TO THE PLAINS"
Elk Comeback Not
Yet Finished

Photos and text by Eric Fowler
Published in NEBRASKAland Magazine, October 2010

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Mention elk to most people, and they are apt to think of high mountains cloaked with aspen and pine forests. Which makes sense, since throughout recent history, that’s where most elk have been found.

That, however, was simply because as Euroamericans settled the continent in the 19th century, the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest were the only places elk were able to find refuge from hungry settlers’ guns. Before settlers arrived, elk were the most widely distributed of the deer species, found across two-thirds of the United States and as much at home, if not more so, on the Great Plains as in the mountains.

Today, elk are making their way back home. Nebraska, the heart of the historic elk range, now boasts more than 2,000 head, a number that is growing steadily as herds expand within their current range and continue to reclaim former territory. The growth comes a mere 25 years after efforts to eliminate the first wild elk herd in the state’s modern history failed, much to the delight of biologists, hunters and nature lovers.

What follows is a brief history of the elk’s return to the state and what the future might hold for this majestic big game animal.

Elk Before White Man

Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni) once occupied all corners of Nebraska. Unlike deer, which browse on trees and shrubs, elk are primarily grazers. “Prior to settlement, Nebraska was better elk habitat than deer habitat, solely because we were 95 percent grass,” said Kit Hams, big game program manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Plains Indians, including the Pawnee and Sioux, regularly hunted elk, especially when buffalo moved to distant ranges. They made clothing from elk hides and the Sioux decorated those clothes with elk ivories, the two top canine teeth that scientists believe are remnants of three-inch-long tusks of the modern elk’s ancestors.

The journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition mentioned elk often as the explorers traveled up the Missouri River in the summer of 1804. They spotted their first on an island in the Missouri near the mouth of the Nemaha River on their second day in what is now Nebraska.

“the Elke Sine is [v]erry plenty. Deer is not as plenty as it was below,” Charles Floyd wrote in his July 18 entry.

In the years that followed, explorers, soldiers and settlers noted the presence of elk, sometimes great herds of them, in Nebraska along the Missouri, Platte, Loup, Cedar, Dismal, Niobrara and Republican Rivers. Like the buffalo, however, their days were numbered, and as civilization spread westward, sustenance hunting and wanton shooting took its toll. By the 1880s, elk had been extirpated from the entire state. Once 10 million strong across North America, elk were gone from 90 percent of their historic range by 1900, when fewer than 100,000 elk remained, mostly in the Mountain West.

Reclaiming Their Territory

In Distribution and Taxonomy of Mammals of Nebraska, published in 1964, J.K. Jones Jr. wrote that elk historically were likely more abundant in eastern Nebraska, where there was less competition from bison and more rivers to provide refuge, than in western Nebraska. Yet it was out west where wild elk first reappeared in the state and are most abundant today.

The first recorded elk sighting came from Box Butte County in 1958, although there are no details of how many. In 1964, a cow and calf elk were seen in Garden County. In either case, the elk likely wandered in from Colorado or Wyoming, where wild elk had survived the settlement rush, or from South Dakota, where elk reintroduction began in the Black Hills in 1914.

Although Wyoming probably had the greatest number of elk following the Westward Expansion, most lived in the mountainous western portion of the state, including Yellowstone National Park. Wyoming’s efforts to expand their range included the release of 43 elk in the Rawhide Buttes, located 12 miles south of Lusk, in 1967 and 1968.

Just five miles to the north of Lusk lies the western tip of the Pine Ridge, a rugged, crescent-shaped escarpment covered in ponderosa pine forest and mixed grass prairie that encompasses about 1,100 square miles of northwestern Nebraska between Wyoming and the South Dakota line north of Rushville. When the elk released near Lusk wandered, as relocated animals often do, it wasn’t a surprise they ended up in the Pine Ridge. An ear-tagged spike bull released in February 1967 was found dead by a Nebraska conservation officer six months later north of Hay Springs, 95 miles from the Rawhide Buttes. In September 1969, Nebraska conservation officers found the remains of a mature bull in Sioux County that had been released south of Lusk in January 1968.

It was during that same two-year span that Stanley Stumf recalls seeing a cow elk on his farm and ranch along Bordeaux Creek southeast of Chadron. A few days later, he heard a bull bugle. He never saw the bull, but saw plenty of the cow.

“She stayed with my cattle all winter long and ate hay with them,” recalled Stumf, now 89. “Then in the spring, I saw her when I was out riding and there she is with a calf.

“I never even questioned it. I figured, ‘Here’s the beginning of an elk herd.’ That’s what I thought and I was right. Pretty soon there was elk all over – they multiplied.”

While there were likely elk elsewhere in the Pine Ridge at the time, biologists believe the elk that made their home on Bordeaux Creek grew into the state’s first resident herd in more than 80 years. The area remains a stronghold for elk.

“The habitat in that Bordeaux area was so suited for elk. You had an interspersion of small grains, you had calving areas, you had good escape cover and you had good winter protection. You had all of the things, including water, that good elk habitat will have,” said Gary Schlichtemeier, who worked in the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Alliance office from 1965 through his retirement in 2006.

Stumf was happy to have the elk, but not all of his neighbors were. By the early 1980s, with the Bordeaux Creek herd having grown to at least 38 head and possibly as many as 65, complaints of damage to crops, hay stacks and fences, and the cost of pasturing the
elk, abounded, as did concerns about diseases such as brucellosis.

In 1985, 42 people from 24 families signed a petition asking that the Commission trap and remove the elk. However, follow-up interviews by Karl Menzel, the Commission’s long-time big game biologist who passed away in 2009, found that about half of the families in the core of the elk range who signed the petition did so only to be good neighbors. They actually welcomed the elk.

Stumf didn’t sign the petition. “They never bothered anything that I knew of,” he said. “Sure they grazed in the millet field a little bit, but that’s no big deal. Hell, I don’t mind having them around. I like having animals around.”

The Commission contacted biologists in six states to see if trapping and removal the elk was feasible. All said such a plan would be extremely expensive and ineffective. Eliminating elk by using sharpshooters or a hunting season were discussed as alternatives, but most Commission biologists, including Schlichtemeier, weren’t in favor of any of those plans: “We knew the habitat was there for elk to increase, and it was just a matter of trying to figure out how elk could survive with the agricultural activities that were going on,” he said. “I felt we could always do something else if we found we just couldn’t have elk in Nebraska, but I felt as wildlife managers we should give it a try and see if we could make it work. I guess I felt there were definitely a lot more people that wanted elk than those that didn’t want elk.”

Feeling pressure from landowners and state legislators, however, Commission administrators agreed to a plan that would reduce the herd to less than 20 head through hunting (even though some landowners said they would not allow it) and not allow the herd to rebuild to problem levels. So Nebraska held its first modern elk reason in 1986, issuing 75 permits – a number most biologists believed was greater than the number of elk. Only 15 elk were harvested, with low success due in part to some landowners closing their land and the ability of elk to become scarce when pressured. In 1987, 42 more permits were issued for a second elk season, and hunters again took home 15 elk.

Based on observations by biologists, conservation officers and landowners, an estimated 12 to 15 elk remained in the Bordeaux Creek herd, bringing it below the population goal, and hunting ended for the time. Contingency plans to feed elk during the winter, and possibly even trap or shoot elk if problems continued, were never needed.

From that small nucleus, the elk herd quietly grew. In 1994, 51 elk were counted in one herd in the Bordeaux Creek area, and there were likely more.

That put the count near levels that had prompted the outcry from landowners a decade earlier, but complaints were fewer and usually involved elk feeding in stack yards. The Commission responded by providing fencing materials to keep the elk out, a practice it continues to this day and one biologists, both past and present, agree was key to changing the perception of some landowners who were initially against having elk in the Pine Ridge.

While the elk herd was growing along Bordeaux Creek, elk were quietly reclaiming territory elsewhere in the Pine Ridge. By 1994, a herd near Crawford had grown to nearly 50 animals, possibly from the 14 head, including a cow that had been fitted with a radio collar in South Dakota that had been spotted in the same area in 1987. Smaller herds had also become established south of Whitney and north of Hay Springs.

With the growth of these herds, hunting resumed in 1995. This time, however, the goal was not to eliminate the population, but to slow its growth through limited recreational hunting, with the emphasis on recreation. An elk season has been held in the Pine Ridge ever since, and the herds have continued to grow. Todd Nordeen, who took over for Schlichtemeier as district wildlife manager for the area, estimates the Pine Ridge elk population at between 1,000 and 1,500 head, with numerous herds concentrated in core areas during certain times of the year and elk scattered throughout the escarpment during others.

“There’s still opportunity for growth,” said Nordeen of the area’s elk population.

Beyond the Ridge

While the elk herd was growing in the Pine Ridge, they were also becoming established in other parts of Nebraska. When those herds grew to manageable levels, new areas were opened to hunting, providing a timeline of elk expansion in the state.

In the early 1990s, captive elk escaped from a pen on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation near Pickstown, South Dakota. Some of those elk crossed the Missouri River and made themselves at home in the rugged cedar and oak forested canyons rising from the river into Nebraska’s Boyd County. In 1996, the area became the second open to elk hunting in the state.

A band of elk spotted in southwestern Nebraska in 1981 may have been the seed for a herd in the loess canyons south of the Platte River between Maxwell and Curtis. Elk were firmly established in the area by the late 1990s, and the area opened to hunting in 2002.

Elk that were spotted along the North Platte River near Lewellen in the early 1980s apparently didn’t stay, but a decade later, others wandering through the area did. There are now two small herds living in the riparian forest between Bridgeport and Lewellen, with elk scattered throughout the riverbottom between Wyoming and Lake McConaughy.

During the same time period, elk became established in the Wildcat Hills, a pine forested escarpment south of the river stretching from Bridgeport to Wyoming. Three herds and other scattered elk now occupy the Wildcats which, along with the North Platte River, opened to elk hunting in 2005.

Captive elk that escaped on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota appear to be the seed for a herd that now spends most of the year in the canyons along the Niobrara River near Nenzel. Elk sightings in the area began in the early 1990s and a decade later became common. Unique among Nebraska’s elk, most of the cows and some of the bulls in that herd migrate between the two states, wintering in South Dakota and spending the rest of the year in Nebraska. With other herds established along the Niobrara near Valentine and Basset, the region opened to hunting in 2007. Growth of the herd near Valentine, as well as disease concerns, led to changes at the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, which has begun eliminating its captive elk and lowering fences to allow wild elk to come and go as they please.

The Niobrara River and Boyd County elk herds aside, biologists can only speculate on the source of the other herds. The Pine Ridge is a likely source, but elk could have wandered in from Wyoming, Colorado or even South Dakota. Biologists have also found it difficult, if not impossible, to get an accurate count of the number of elk in Nebraska, but based on their observations and those provided by hunters, landowners and others, they believe each of the herds is slowly growing.

Next Stop … ?

Biologists estimate there were between 1,600 and 2,200 head of elk heading into last spring’s calving season, which likely added about 300 more animals to the herd, and elk harvest should be around 150 head this fall. Based on Hams’ estimates, the state’s herd is growing by 15 to 20 percent per year. At that rate, the elk that survived the first two hunting seasons in the Pine Ridge could have fueled the growth of the state’s entire population, but interstate movement of animals likely figured into the equation as well, and not just in the Boyd and Niobrara units. Nordeen is fairly certain there continues to be movement of young bulls, and possibly other elk, from the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming into the Pine Ridge.

Elk, especially young bulls that tire of bouts with older males, are prone to wander and can cover 50 miles in a day. Reports of bull elk have come from all corners of Nebraska, most staying in one area for a short time before moving on. Sometimes cow elk wander off with those bulls, too, and when that happens, a new herd can be established wherever they find things to their liking and stop, as was the case when the Wyoming elk settled in the Pine Ridge more than 40 years ago.

So where will elk wander off to next? “Clearly they’re going to continue to fill in the Pine Ridge, the North Platte River, the Wildcat Hills and those escarpments, and the Niobrara River all the way down to the town of Niobrara,” said Hams. “Those are all of the easy ones.”

Nordeen said it appears as though new herds are currently forming along the Niobrara south of Rushville and Gordon, and in the Wildcat Hills on the south edge of the Pumpkin Creek Valley west of Harrisburg.

Hams said the territory elk are likely to reclaim next is the Sandhills, which may already have the beginnings of its first herd. Michael Croxen of the Nebraska National Forest – Bessey Ranger District near Halsey said four years ago a visitor reported seeing a herd of 10 cows and calves with two bulls. While a herd of that size hasn’t been reported since, sightings of elk on the forest aren’t uncommon, including a cow and calf that were seen this summer. Elk are also being reported on nearby private land along the Dismal River. For that matter, any of the other rivers running through the Sandhills, including the Snake, Cedar and Loups, all of which include stretches that are forested with cedars, cottonwoods or other deciduous trees, could support elk today just as they did more than 100 years ago. So could rougher areas of the Sandhills, including those east of Alliance where Schlichtemeier regularly received reports of elk.

“If elk stay in the general habitats that they’re in right now, I think the population will double from where it is now in about five years,” Hams said. “If they expand into the Sandhills, that’s a huge amount of habitat – three times as much habitat as there is everywhere else in the state. There’s very little row-crop agriculture and a lot of grass. You could put 1,000 elk in the Sandhills and not even know they’re there.”

The rugged, cedar-forested canyons of the Central Loess Hills Region in and around Custer County also have habitat suitable for a new elk herd, as do most rivers, including the Missouri. Richard Nelson, district wildlife biologist in the Commission’s North Platte office, said there are already a few elk living along the Platte and Republican rivers in southwestern Nebraska.

It’s Your Call

While some landowners in the Pine Ridge, Boyd County and elsewhere initially were opposed to having any elk around, perceptions seem to be changing.
“They’ve become fairly popular with the landowners,” said Nordeen, noting that landowners not only appreciate the opportunity they get to hunt elk themselves, but many make additional income by charging others who hunt their land.

Wherever elk move to next, it will be the landowners who decide if they stay and how big the herds will be, as Hams said the Commission recognizes the damage these large mammals can do to crops.

John Orr has had elk on his farm and ranch on the North Platte River near Lewellen since the early 1990s. He said bachelor groups of bulls spend much of the summer in his corn fields, which provide everything an elk needs – food, water and cover – and may be cooler and less bug infested than the riverbottom. The bulls trample the corn, bed down and stay.

“When they start living in the corn fields, those things do a lot of damage,” said Orr. “It seems like they have to make themselves a new place to lay down every night.”

That damage isn’t evident until harvest rolls around in the fall, but the damage elk cause to fences is more readily seen. “A four-wire fence is nothing to them,” Orr said. “If they want to, they’ll just run right through it and never look back.”

A self-described nature lover, Orr admits he has mixed feelings about the elk, and isn’t sure he would want the herd to grow much beyond its current level. “They’re so pretty to look at and so majestic, and I love hearing them in the fall when they start bugling,” he said. “So I’m glad they are here – I just wish they weren’t quite so destructive.”

Likewise, Mark Johnson is mostly happy to have had elk on his place near Nenzel since the early 1990s. But the migratory nature of that herd lessens the damage they can cause, and led Johnson and other landowners to ask that only bull permits be issued when the area opened to hunting in 2007. It was the bulls that were doing most of the damage, often tearing up hay bales and trees with their antlers. Johnson tries to alleviate the damage by placing round bales near a shelterbelt and pivot on the south edge of his property, giving the elk something to eat far from his stack yard.

Hunting has reduced the number of bulls in the Nenzel herd, and the pressure seems to have broken what had been one large herd into several smaller ones, Johnson said. Last winter, however, the cows were slow to move north to South Dakota. “I had them here probably for a month and a half which was getting to be a little long,” said Johnson. “If the cows did stay here all winter long, we would want more cow permits because I can’t have 62 head of elk all winter. I just can’t. But in the short time they’re here you get to see them, you get to enjoy them and people want to come see them. And as long as the snow doesn’t get a foot-and-a-half deep, they’re not too bad.”

With the sentiments of Orr, Johnson and other landowners in mind, the Commission’s elk management plan has been fluid and ever evolving. Ten years ago, the plan suggested that elk would not be tolerated in heavily farmed portions of the state. That section will likely be removed in a revised plan, work on which is underway. Hams said the new approach will be on a case-by-case basis wherever elk decide to settle down.

“There are a lot of places in the Sandhills where elk are going to be welcomed,” he said. “And we’ve had elk show up throughout eastern Nebraska and rarely have we had a complaint. If we get 20 elk that set up on the Lower Platte, it will probably be a problem, but we’ll see.”

Two recent examples illustrate the differing opinions landowners have of elk. For the past two years, Pat Molini, the Commission’s district wildlife
manager in Lincoln, has received a call from a woman living in the hills south of the Platte River near Columbus. She wouldn’t leave her name or address, but wanted Molini to know she had elk on her property. The last time she called, she reported seeing elk calves. Molini said she is apparently happy to have the elk and doesn’t want anyone to bother them.

A herd of 10 to 20 elk that has made its home along a creek south of Interstate 80 near Sutherland, however, has not been welcomed by landowners, so the Commission has increased the number of cow permits available in the area and has directed hunters there in an effort to reduce that herd, an approach it will use elsewhere that elk become a problem.

Even within their current range, biologists aren’t certain how many more elk will be tolerated. In the Pine Ridge, for example, the population is already about double what a 2002 University of Nebraska – Lincoln study estimated the area’s landowners would want, although that number was less than what the study said the habitat could support. But Hams said landowner tolerance of elk is greater now than anyone could have imagined. “It kind of started out like a relationship between the little boy and girl that are eight or nine years old and can’t stand each other and then end up getting married,” Hams said. “People start seeing things differently, and that’s the phase we’ve been in here the last 20 years, an emerging of appreciation for each other … elk, landowners, hunters and Game and Parks.”

“It’s a changing story, that’s for sure,” said Hams.

And a good story for those who appreciate elk. The next chapters should be interesting reading.

 

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