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Michigan university brings study of elk to classroom

01/10/2017, 12:18am EST
By By MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

Students in grades 9-12 can learn all aspects of managing elk herd

Imagine enrolling in a university without being required to fill out a lengthy and redundant application form. You need submit no ACT or SAT scores, pay no administrative fees, and you are not required to complete the scourge of many parents of college-bound students — the dreaded FAFSA form — which asks you repeatedly about your foreign investment properties and your extensive agricultural holdings.

No, this university detours around the bureaucratic swamp and gets right to the enrollment and the education phase. The subject is elk, and the hope is every enrollee becomes a citizen wildlife steward, and a few go on to pursue a more formal track to a career in conservation and wildlife management.

Perhaps you never have heard of this university of higher learning. Michigan has Cornerstone University, Spring Arbor University, Finlandia University, Madonna University, and Michigan Technological University.

Then there is “Elk University.” The lessons cover elk biology, the social considerations involved with managing wildlife, Michigan history, forest management and diseases that afflict Michigan wildlife. There also are segments on the specifics of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ approach to managing the state’s elk herd.

Elk University practices open enrollment — students in grades 9-12 can register for free and receive the course, which is crafted so it meshes well with a busy classroom curriculum, and meets educational standards. There are three lessons provided via YouTube, with a total class time of around three hours.

Elk University is in its second year, and there were 40-some schools enrolled this past fall, with about 2,600 students taking part, representing schools that stretched from the Upper Peninsula to the southeastern part of the state. From its start in fall 2015, the MDNR’s Elk University has had 110 schools and more than 5,700 students enroll.

“We hope to continue to reach additional schools this spring,” said MDNR wildlife outreach technician Katie Keen, who oversees the program.

Keen said the Elk University curriculum will educate the students on what makes elk such a unique species, but also give them a broader introduction to Michigan’s diverse wildlife and its rich outdoors.

“Connecting students with Michigan’s wildlife is the goal of our wildlife education programs,” Keen said. “There are so many unique and interesting natural wonders here in Michigan, the possibilities are endless.”

Schools and educators have until Jan. 30 to enroll for Elk University’s spring semester. Registration is available online at mi.gov/​wildlife, where there also is information on other wildlife education programs available for children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Elk are native to Michigan but disappeared from the state by around 1875, because of unregulated hunting and loss of habitat. Elk do best in habitat that is a mixture of forested areas and grassy openings.

Michigan reintroduced elk in 1918 with the release of seven animals near the town of Wolverine in the northern third of the Lower Peninsula. The herd experienced steady growth and reached about 1,500 by the early 1960s.

Limited hunting of elk was introduced in 1964 and ’65, but a combination of the reduced quality of the habitat and losses to poaching saw the elk numbers sink to around 200 by 1975. As the habitat improved and poaching losses were reduced, the herd rebounded and increased to about 850 elk by 1984.

As the growing numbers of elk began to negatively impact forest areas and agricultural fields, limited hunting was reintroduced in 1984 in hopes of bringing the herd size into a better balance with the available natural food sources. At 350 to 900 pounds, an elk can consume a lot of vegetation or crops.

The most recent aerial survey of the state’s elk herd, which is located in the northeast corner of the Lower Peninsula, estimated the herd size at slightly more than 1,300 animals. Michigan had more than 31,000 applicants for its 200 elk harvesting permits in 2016. There were two hunting periods in the fall and early winter, with 100 hunters taking part in each.

“The 100 elk hunters are essentially serving as wildlife managers during this hunt,” said Jennifer Kleitch, a wildlife biologist with MDNR. “This is managed in such an intense way, we can get the locations of known elk and work with private landowners who want assistance in getting the elk off their land.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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Katie Keen, a wildlife outreach technician with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, displays elk antlers. Bull elk put on a new set of antlers yearly, and antler size is an indication of the health of the animal. MICHIGAN DNR

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