Friday, August 23, 2013
Okay. I understand putting up wildlife crossing signs of various types to alert motorists to the possibility that large animals of some sort -- deer, bison, moose, whatever -- might come wandering across the pavement. These elk crossing signs near Clam Lake are, however, a little more high tech than the usual warnings. They have flashing lights. According to a sign posted at the beginning of the stretch of Wisconsin highway 70, the lights flash when elk are in the vicinity. I immediately had visions of elk nudging the equivalent of a pedestrian crosswalk's "Walk" button while at the same time I was cynically thinking the only thing that flashing lights really did was signal the presence of cars. I noticed that a couple of the signals started flashing right about the time we got close to them, so I couldn't help but wonder if the motion detector was actually a radar gun aimed at the highway.
My cynicism was misplaced. Thanks to the wonders of Google, I now know the elk detectors really do detect elk. Elk were transplanted into northern Wisconsin in 1995; the herd was never big and has been struggling. Quite a few elk were lost to vehicle collisions so the DNR decided to try the elk detection system in 2006. Because the herd remains small and is closely monitored, most of the elk have radio collars. When an elk wanders to within a certain distance from the elk detector signs, the lights start flashing.
I have distinctly mixed feelings about trying to transplant wildlife. I can understand the desire to return wildlife to habitats where those animals may once have been common, but after reading about the elk program it felt way too much like the DNR is simply engaged in elk ranching, just done on a larger geographic scale than the typical commercial operation. In cooperation with the US Forest Service, they actually go out and mow large sections of land to keep it open for elk to graze. And why are they doing all this? Is it for species diversity or to protect an endangered species? Nope. It's for the same reason commercial elk ranchers raise elk: the ultimate goal is to give someone a chance to hunt elk. Wisconsin is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to nurture its elk herd for the same reason that Michigan spent a lot of money to introduce moose: so that at some point in the future some asshole with a gun can go out and kill something.