Listening in elk habitat

Emily Stone

The lone bull tending this group of almost a dozen cow elk was last to cross the open area near Clam Lake. Photo by Emily Stone.

Morning mist hung low in the sky as a dozen elk ran across a clearing. A similarly sized herd of Museum members held our breath and grinned at our good luck. It was luck 3 billion years in the making.  

All morning we’d been listening intently. The Museum has been hosting this annual Sounds of the Elk field trip since long before I arrived on the scene. First it was Laine Stowell who used his bulky radio telemetry equipment to locate collared cow elk and lead us down the logging roads to get close to a herd. He’d pause occasionally to use the receiver dangling around his neck, then he’d mew like a cow or bugle like a bull. Some years a haunting, high-pitched trumpet would echo through the woods in reply. In many years, silence.  

Silence was a historical fact, too. Elk were extirpated from Wisconsin in the 1880s due to unregulated hunting and a rapid decline in habitat. In 1995, 25 elk were released into the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Clam Lake. Ninety-one  more elk arrived in the Clam Lake Elk Range from Kentucky in March 2017 and 2019. Additionally, 63 elk were released in Jackson County in 2015 and 2016 to establish the Black River Elk Range, also using elk from southeastern Kentucky.

The new elk continue to improve the genetic diversity and expand the size of the herd. A hunting season was initialed in 2018 and revenue from hunters funds almost the entire project. The DNR now estimates that the population has surpassed 500 animals, with about 350 in the Clam Lake Zone!  

Laine, who led the reintroduction, retired a few years ago, and Joshua Spiegel is the current Wisconsin DNR Wildlife Biologist who leads us in search of elk. On this morning, in between Josh’s calls, we heard no elk reply. The morning was very warm, he explained, reducing rutting activity. Fifty-eight degrees at dawn doesn’t feel like fall to an elk. But the woods weren’t silent.  

A red squirrel scolded incessantly, as they do. Blue jays shouted their name. Spring peepers piped up sporadically in a phenomenon called “fall echo,” where they are triggered by day length that reminds them of their spring breeding season.

The hollow croaks of ravens drifted musically over the forest. Breathy half-songs came from the treetops, too, like someone whistling through their teeth. “Confusing fall warblers” (a technical term) are on the move south, and must have been gleaning bugs from the foliage for breakfast. And, as we walked, I picked up on the characteristic melancholy-sounding swee notes of a flock of goldfinches that earned them a Latin name tristis, which means sad. But we didn’t hear any elk.  

Even when we saw our first elk, I couldn’t hear her. With the old tracking equipment, Laine might have heard the beeping of her bright orange collar through the receiver, but Josh’s GPS makes no sound. We’d walked into a second location—a long strip of open grassland bordered by forest—and spotted a couple of cow elk off in the brush. She looked right at us. So much for the element of surprise! As she put her head down and walked off, though, I didn’t hear any leaves rustling. There was no twig snap. The 500 pound animal just vanished.  

It’s fitting that we should be listening in this particular wide swath cleared through the forest, since at one point submarines were listening to sounds originating here.  

The clearing is on the old ELF line. This U.S. Navy project used extremely low frequency (ELF) radio waves to communicate with deeply submerged submarines throughout the world. The transmitter operated from 1989 to 2004, and consisted of two 14-mile transmission line antennas in the shape of a cross, with the transmitter station at their intersection. The lines were removed in 2008. Its legacy is that some of the clearing that was once mowed for maintenance is now kept open for wildlife habitat.

The elk like the freedom of movement and tender new growth that the cut area provides. It is one of the main reasons that this area was chosen for the elk reintroduction in 1995.   And the bedrock here was one of the main reasons that this area was chosen for the ELF.

As I confirmed with my Flyover Country app, the bedrock under Clam Lake is mapped as 3.2 to 3.6 billion-year-old gneiss from the original Superior Continent (learn about it in our current exhibit!). The rock is buried by glacial sediments here. That’s why our Geology of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula field trip visited an outcrop of basically the same stuff near Republic, Michigan—which is where a second ELF transmitter was located. This is no coincidence!

These rocks of the Laurentian Shield possess qualities that channeled the ELF currents deeper into the ground, increasing signal efficiency.   Looking up from the bedrock map on my phone, I saw the perked ears of a cow elk peeking up over the hill, visible because of the mowing still done to maintain the open, grassy concept of the ELF line. Josh motioned for all of us to creep forward.

Two cows watched us. Then, they jogged across the ELF line to the right, and more elk appeared. Now I could hear them. Hooves pounded and brush rustled as ten females ran and milled and crossed the clearing. A stately bull brought up the end of the line, and he paused as if to let us admire him before trotting across on the heels of a cow.   Now that the spell was broken, we talked excitedly about what we’d just seen. We no longer needed to listen intently for the elk. And no one is listening to the ELF, either. But we still feel the impact of that 3 billion-year-old rock.  

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at and at your local independent bookstore, too.   For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our exhibit: “The Northwoods ROCKS!” is open through mid-March. Our Fall Calendar of Events is ready for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to see what we are up to.