My Michigan Elk Experience
As a child, I spent many summers up in the Gaylord area at my stepfather’s family hunting cabin. A regular evening activity was to drive to certain areas around dusk and to try and spot deer and elk. In a time before the internet and cell phones had become common, this was the height of entertainment. There would be 10-12 cars lined up in a parking lot overlooking a wooded field. My stepfather would take a giant spotlight and plug it into the cigarette lighter and shine into the distance. On rare occasions, he would claim to spot an elk, but I never got the chance to see them before they were gone.
Flash forward to when I was in my early 20s, and I was invited by friends to spend a week at the Private Black River Ranch in Onaway. The ranch is a 10,000-acre section of pristine Michigan woods and trout streams held in perpetual lease for an exclusive membership of about 30 people. At night we would head out in a Jeep Wrangler on backwoods trails towards the private airstrip on the property. In a scene reminiscent of Jurassic Park, we would park and survey the sprawling fields. Around dusk, the eery sound of distant bugles echoed through the woods. I can honestly say to this day it was one of the most chilling sounds I have heard in the woods of Michigan.
Shortly after we started to hear their calls, dozens and dozens of elk descended onto the airstrip for their evening feeding. There had to be close to 100 in all. I had never seen anything like it. The sheer size of the animals was nothing short of extraordinary. There was even a bachelor group of exiled males who had lost their herds to tougher bulls. They came out after most of the other elk had left the field. All this is to say, since that day I have had a strong desire to see elk again in Michigan.
Michigan’s Elk Hunt
Elk were once animals that were native to Michigan. However, due to the commercial market hunting of the 1800s, they were estimated to be extinct by 1875. In 1918, with the new concepts of conservation, several Rocky Mountain Elk were released into northern Michigan in the hopes that they would establish a new herd. By 1960 the herd was estimated to be 1500 elk strong. The numbers went up and down for the next few decades before finally stabilizing at about 1000 elk, the number that we have now.
Every year in Michigan, about 30,000 hunters apply for the chance to hunt approximately 100 elk. The success rate for drawing an elk tag is extremely low, however, every year you unsuccessfully apply you accumulate a point. You must apply at least every 5 years to retain your points. As your points increase your number of chances to draw a tag increases. Each point is like another name in a hat. What this means, is that someone applying for the first time could theoretically be drawn as well.
The application is $5 to apply, though the application period has ended for 2020 (May 31st was the deadline). If you draw a bull or any elk (bull or cow) tag, you are not allowed to ever apply for the elk hunt again. Successful cow tag applicants may apply again after 10 years. Note that whether your hunt is successful or not, the lifetime and 10-year limits still apply.
Being able to apply for a chance to hunt elk in Michigan is a great opportunity afforded to us. Whether or not you ever draw a tag, I highly recommend getting up to the interior of the Lower Peninsula to see these amazing creatures in person at some point. Going out west to elk hunt is something many hunters look forward to every year, but the chance to see and hunt one in our home state is something special indeed.