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Are There Elk in Michigan

Updated on February 22, 2013
A population of Elk is well-established in the northern part of Michigan's lower peninsula.
A population of Elk is well-established in the northern part of Michigan's lower peninsula. | Source

There are elk in Michigan. Prior to European settlement, Michigan was home to a native population of the now-extinct Eastern Elk. After the last of these majestic animals were hunted, a population of Rocky Mountain Elk was introduced to the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula, near the city of Wolverine. Today, the herd fluctuates in number and has recently measured somewhere in the high hundreds.

A Member of the Herd

The Eastern Elk

An elk subspecies, the Eastern Elk once roamed the Eastern United States. This subspecies was generally larger than its Western counterparts. Like many of the large mammals east of the Mississippi, they were extensively hunted after European settlers reached North America. The last of Michigan’s native elk population was hunted in around 1875. The United States government declared the subspecies extinct in 1880.

Michigan's Elk Country

The Location of Michigan’s Elk Heard

Michigan’s elk herd is located in the northern part of the Michigan’s lower peninsula. The population is centered in and around the Pigeon River Country State Forest, but the herd’s range extend s beyond the forest territory. Roughly speaking, the heard remains within an area bounded by Gaylord to the Southwest, Indian River to the Northwest, and Atlanta to the Southeast. Interstate 75 is a rough approximation of the territory’s Western edge, although elk have been known to cross the freeway.

Throughout the Pigeon River Country State Forest, designated elk viewing areas are maintained. These large, clear areas certainly do not guarantee a sighting, but they present one of the best opportunities for forest visitors to catch a glimpse of one of these majestic animals.

Views of the Pigeon River Country State Forest

Elk frequent the meadows in the Pigeon River Country State Forest.
Elk frequent the meadows in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. | Source
The view from an overlook in the Pigeon River Country State Forest.
The view from an overlook in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. | Source

The Introduction of Rocky Mountain Elk

In 1918, a mere seven Rocky Mountain Elk were released near Wolverine, Michigan. The reintroduction was successful, and this small population grew into a substantial herd. Today’s herd of about 800 animals dates from this initial release.

A View From the Road

The History of Michigan’s Elk Herd

After the herd grew from the initial 1918 reintroduction, it spread across its present day territory. The forest had been extensively logged, and had suffered substantial forest fire activity. (To this day, visitors can climb the old fire-watch towers for a panoramic view of the area.) This made for an ideal elk habitat of young, new-growth vegetation.

Over time, the forest matured, paradoxically making it less hospitable to the shrub-grazing herbivores. Additionally, the encroachment of human activity – including the aforementioned interstate – put additional pressure on the habitat. Tensions came to a head in the 1970s, when oil and gas interests sought to drill in the state forest. Protracted litigation led to the current framework for the forest’s management, including the management of the elk herd. Since this time, limited hunts have been conducted in order to manage the herd’s size.

Since the 1970s, the herd has generally grown. Its estimated size increased from around 200 specimens to a high of around 1400 in 1992, and remaining around 1000 until the late 00s. The most recent estimates place the population at around 800.

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