The Elk of Jackson County

Bringing elk back is challenging for area farmers

News 8 Investigates - The Elk of...

TOWN OF KNAPP, Wis. - During the past year and a half, the Wisconsin DNR has been busy reintroducing elk in two parts of the state.
One herd near Clam Lake up north in Ashland County and the second herd in Jackson County.

But reintroducing an animal this large after its disappearance 150 years ago comes with plenty of challenges.
More than 70 elk that have been brought to our area are all from Kentucky, but now they are "The Elk of Jackson County."

The Woods and Meadows Hunting Preserve is on a fourth generation family farm in Jackson County.

Scott Goetzka oversees the 900 acres where they grow more than one hundred acres of corn, soybean and wheat, while bringing in sportsmen and women from all over to hunt some 16,000 pheasant each year. But this family farm is now part of the elk management zone.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has used the Black River State and Jackson County Forest land to release 73 elk since 2015 and the Goetzka farm is now frequented by more than 30 elk.

Goetzka spends about $22,000 each year to plant crops for his hunting preserve, part of which is now being eaten or destroyed by elk. And he he thinks he knows why he's seeing so many of them.

According to Goetzka, "So when the wolf pressure occurred, they moved down to the southeastern part because we don't have wolf packs right in here."

And there may be other reasons too. "Right now it's hard to say, but they're certainly seeking out the best food possible and the best habitat overall and potentially trying to get rid of people or predators", says Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Biologist Scott Roepke. "So what they elk are doing is knocking down all this cover when they are going in there to eat", says Goetzka.

The thousands of pheasants that live on Goetzka's farm need these crops to survive the winter.
Goetzka says, " If we lose our winter hunting cover that's a third of our annual income."
And that's where the Department of Natural Resources comes in.  They already worked with the area cranberry growers to protect their crops with high fences.

"For the cranberry growers within the initial release, probably within three or four weeks of the initial release we had elk that were showing up on cranberry marshes," says Brad Koele, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Damage Specialist. 

According to Goetzka,"So the Cranberry Growers Association fought for the rights of their growers here and they got their marshes fenced in at no cost."

But Goetzka's don't have a crop that is harvested each year, so his land isn't eligible for the same fencing program that cranberry growers used. It's something he's hoping local legislators can help him with, some who have experienced the elk firsthand.

Republican Representative Nancy VanderMeer of Wisconsin's 70th Assembly  District explained, "Early last summer we had a couple of the male elk. They were on our farm and in our corn fields so yes we have seen them and they do territorialize over a large area." 

Representative VanderMeer appreciates the value of Goetzka's hunting business to the area's economy.
So far, Goetzka has only been awarded $300 in crop damage, but with a $500 deductible, he hasn't received any compensation yet.

VanderMeer says, "So what we're seeking to do is try to find an equitable solution for Scott's operation to prevent any further damage."

The DNR has even used pyrotechnics to scare the elk off of Goetzka's property to limit damage, like the time they tipped over his LP tank. And you might be surprised to see just how comfortable some of the elk are getting.

One of the biggest concerns of area farmers and businesses have is that some of the elk might wander out of the desired area. In one case a young calf wandered right into a farmer's barn.

"When they released her she's not knowing where she is, she traveled down the county road and showed up at Mike's Farm here. Walked right in with the cattle and the ponies and started eating because she is obviously very hungry", said Goetzka.

Scott Roepke pointed out, "In the case of this calf, it was separated from the group, we do know where its mother is with the larger herd. We are attempting to relocate that calf back to the main herd."

As far as the latest numbers go: of the 73 elk released since 2015 , 54 have survived.

Roepke explained the mortality rate, "We've lost more animals thus far than we were hoping for. What we've seen in the last couple months is that the population has stabilized, mortalities have slowed down. We're coming up on the calving season here in the next couple of months.  We are expecting between 20 and 30 calves to be born. That would be a great boost!"

But Goetzka worries if the 30 or so elk he is seeing now grow to the desired 300 the DNR is aiming for, his business might not survive. He'll be the first to tell you he's not against the elk.

Goetzka says, "We don't feel the few people who are farming out here feel that it's the elks' fault. We just have to figure out how to co-exist with them. " 

The Goetzka's have decided to go ahead and spend the 8 to $12,000 that's needed to prepare their land for fencing in the hopes they will get some state funding for it in the spring.

And right after the warm spell last week, the elk herd came near a field where the young wayward calf had been staying and it was reunited with the rest of the herd.

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