The 2017 hunting season statistics are in, and the winter elk survey just wrapped up, giving the Michigan Department of Natural Resources a clear picture of where the state’s elk population currently stands.
Hunt period 1, which targets elk outside of their traditional range, was 12 days long. From Aug 29-Sept. 1, Sept 15-18, and Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 100 state hunters harvested 74 elk (30 bulls and 44 antlerless elk).
During hunt period 2, Dec. 9-17, all locations in the northern tip of the state were open to hunting. Another 100 state hunters harvested 84 elk (30 bulls and 54 antlerless elk) during this hunt.
Before regulated hunting can take place to assist in management, Michigan’s elk population has to be evaluated.
“Our population goal for elk is between 500 and 900 animals. This has been determined as the best balance for the forests, area agriculture and residents,” said DNR elk specialist Chad Stewart. “Besides having an estimated population, knowing where they are located is also very important.”
An aerial elk survey occurs in January, with a DNR airplane flying predetermined routes, or transects, to locate elk. Once elk are found, the plane circles and observers count how many are present and determine the number of males and females in the group.
Most of Michigan’s elk population can be found within or adjacent to the elk range in the northeast Lower Peninsula. The Pigeon River Country State Forest makes up a large area of the elk range, and fields are planted and mowed to attract elk from the surrounding private land.
“We try to lure elk away from agriculture, using different techniques to modify the forest,” said Stewart. “We try to encourage elk to hang out in those modified locations.”
During the 2018 survey, 8,000 miles of transects were flown over eight days, and 800 elk were sighted during this time. No wildlife survey can count 100 percent of the animals in an area because they move and often are under cover like trees, so a formula is used to estimate population. Other states use similar formulas during wildlife surveys.
The 2018 aerial survey determined an estimated elk population of approximately 1,173 elk, with a confidence interval of plus or minus 339.
“The survey tells us there are between 834 and 1,512 elk in Michigan,” said DNR Wildlife Field Operations Manager Brian Mastenbrook. “Based on this survey, past surveys, damage concerns and disease issues, our recommendation to the Natural Resources Commission is to continue reducing the elk population slowly over the coming years.”
The Natural Resources Commission has exclusive authority to regulate the taking of game.
The aerial survey takes place in January, when there is snow on the ground and leaves are off the trees, both conditions that allow the best view of elk from above. It is also done after the elk hunting season is complete and before young elk are born, therefore the lowest point in the population during the year.
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of elk being reintroduced into Michigan. Elk were reintroduced in 1918, when seven elk were brought from the western United States to Wolverine, Michigan. To help celebrate this conservation success, the wildlife habitat license plate features the image of an elk for 2018. All funds derived from the sale of the license plates are dedicated to the nongame fish and wildlife fund. Learn more at mi.gov/elk.