Elk are such a large part of Michigan’s history that they are even featured on the state’s flag. Unfortunately, this popularity is what led to the elk’s demise. In the 1800s, the elk population in Michigan was comprised of a subspecies known as eastern elk, which were targeted for rampant and unrestricted market hunting. Market hunting is illegal today and involves hunting wildlife to sell to restaurants and individuals. In addition to hunting activities, the clearcutting of forests for timber, property, and agriculture, threatened the elk as well. The lush forests are an ideal habitat, and as herbivores, elk rely on this environment as a part of their diet. The culmination of these anthropogenic pressures resulted in disaster around 1875 when the elk disappeared from Michigan, and in 1877 the last known eastern elk was shot in Pennsylvania, rendering them extinct.
ln 1918, the state of Michigan began an attempt to reverse this mistake by relocating seven Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park to Wolverine, Michigan. The animals steadily reproduced, and their population grew from 400 in 1938 to nearly 1,000 by 1958. However, long-term restoration projects seldom succeed without first overcoming obstacles. By the 1960s, the elk population had grown so high that they began migrating outside of their original range and into private land. The state responded to the public outcry by holding two tightly regulated hunts. Alas, the success was limited, as subsequent poaching caused the population to decline once again. Only 200 elk were left by 1975, prompting the creation of the Michigan Elk Management Plan. The group worked to determine an appropriate number of elk that would be required to maintain the population in Michigan without forcing them to compete with human’s agricultural land or food sources for deer. This number was set at 500-600 and was raised to 500-900 in 2012.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the elk’s return to Michigan, and the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hosted a celebration on September 8th, 2018. It is currently elk hunting season, an annual event that was implemented just over 30 years ago to keep population numbers at bay. This year, the elk population was estimated to be around 1,200 individuals, and thus, the DNR issued licenses to hunt 200 of them. The hunt is very tightly regulated and approximately 50,000 people apply for these limited permits each year. This 100-year anniversary marks a long-term success for elk populations and for the state of Michigan. The collaboration between governmental agencies and the public has allowed the ecosystems to thrive while a vital part of the state’s history can be enjoyed by all.
What are some ways your hometown has worked to protect local wildlife?
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