They are a Michigan treasure that doesn’t get much press. Considering their size and numbers, Michigan’s huge elk herd stays remarkably hidden away in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula just off I-75.
The Pigeon River Country State Forest near Gaylord is the home to over 1,000 elk in the 105,000-acre area that is specifically managed to sustain the herd and keep the animals healthy. Wiped out more than a century ago, the elk’s comeback is a Pure Michigan story we can be proud of.
Michigan’s native elk disappeared around 1875 from unregulated hunting and destruction of habitat from the lumbering boom. In 1918, the year Sgt. York makes a name for himself in WWI, seven western elk are released near Wolverine, MI. With no natural predators, that small herd grows into 1,500 elk by the early 1960’s.
Licensed hunting was then allowed for a couple of years but rampant poaching and a decline in habitat reduced the herd to 200 animals by 1975. Rescue for the diminishing population came in the form of oil exploration in the Pigeon River area. The environmental impact got people looking at the elk and their habitat.
The environment began to be managed specifically to sustain the elk population. Among other initiatives, forests on state-land were managed to contain roughly 26 percent aspen trees, about 1000 acres of wildlife openings, and the total amount of open or upland brush acres was increased to 6-7 percent. Private landowners within the elk range were offered information and assistance to help them meet both DNR and landowner needs.
Aerial surveys are now performed to determine elk numbers and distribution. The population goal is between 500-900 animals so that crop damage, disease concerns and forest regeneration are minimized and recreational opportunities are maximized. Testing of all hunter-killed elk for bovine tuberculosis is mandatory.
The most popular time to view elk is during the fall breeding season. In September and October, they are feeding in open grassy areas and the bulls, or male elk, are especially vocal. To get you started on you elk viewing adventure, use the elk viewing guide to familiarize yourself with the area, and pick your route.
So if you’re traveling north for Michigan’s fall colors, consider taking a detour through the great wild of Pigeon River Country State Forest for a chance at viewing one of our state’s great comeback stories against the backdrop of aspen, pine, and cerulean blue autumn sky.