In Search of Wisconsin’s Newborns
By Jennifer Nieland, Wisconsin State Chair
Clam Lake, Wisconsin, (home of our elk herd) is about four hours northwest of my home in Green Bay. This region is referred to as “up north,” and people say that troubles and worries seem to fall off your shoulders “north of 64,” which is the east/west highway that separates the area from the rest of the state. I crossed Highway 64 about 2 p.m. on Friday, June 7, on my way to help search for newborn elk calves.
Calf searches are an awesome opportunity for RMEF volunteers and members to make a step beyond just attending a Big Game Banquet, and to participate in a field project with real, wild Wisconsin elk. Our herd was reintroduced in 1995 and has grown to about 160 animals. Every spring, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources elk biologist Laine Stowell and his team of staff and volunteers spend two weekends monitoring radio-collared pregnant cows and searching for new calves.
Calf searches typically involve teams of 15 volunteers stationed at predetermined locations in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. We line up about two arm-lengths apart and quietly walk forward through a search area looking for a calf. The search sites can vary from dry upland habitat to brushy pines and even wet, swampy areas. Matthew Smith, my fellow RMEF co-chair, provides bright t-shirts each year, so we can easily see one another and keep our search line straight. Due to the various habitats and prolific mosquito population (no bug spray allowed to give off our scent!), we always stay covered in clothing and head nets.
My shoulders indeed felt a bit lighter as I left behind my worries and obligations in Green Bay. About 45 minutes from my destination, just north of Park Falls, the largest black bear I have ever seen strolled across the highway. Traffic scattered to the gravel shoulders, windows rolled down and iPhones came out, with everyone trying to capture the big bruin that no doubt made his world-wide debut on Facebook shortly after.
Upon arriving at Clam Lake, I met up with RMEF volunteers Richelle and Steve Schaefer from Vermont who were participating in their first calf search. Later that evening, I was able to show them their first Wisconsin elk, a radio-collared spike bull.
The next morning we set out early to search for calves. Our first stop was near Moose Lake in an upland maple forest. It was bright, sunny and dry, and the leaves crunched under our feet as we walked in line. Before long, I looked up ahead on a small hill and found my first calf ever, curled up like puppy, looking at me with big, brown eyes. I said calmly, but loudly, “The calf is here.” The team surrounded it, then Stowell and his team went to work processing the calf (determining the age, sex and weight, and attaching an ear tag and radio collar). The calf was now known as #407, a female. The entire search was over in less than 15 minutes.
On Sunday, we found female calf #408 while searching in a steady rain. At last report, both of these little girls were thriving.
Every time I think about seeing those tiny calves, I get tears in my eyes. Experiences like this reinforce my commitment to the RMEF’s mission. The next time you have an opportunity to get out in the field and work for elk, do it. It will be a part of you forever.