October 25, 2020

Spotlight on Nature

Meet Gaylord’s Gang of Elk
By Kristi Kates | May 13, 2017

The Gaylord Elks Club might be the only Elks Club in America that has real elk roaming in its backyard. The Gaylord City Elk Park, a site spanning 108 acres, abuts the club (although they’re not affiliated) and serves as home to a herd of free-ranging elk — technically called a gang — that has been living in the park, courtesy of the city of Gaylord, since the late 1980s.

The park itself has an unusual backstory. Without direct access to any of the Great Lakes, Gaylord, when it established its wastewater treatment plant, had to look to other means of disposing of its treated water. The acreage offered the perfect solution.

“The grounds act like a big septic field,” said Joe Duff, Gaylord’s city manager. “The treated water percolates into the existing groundwater, and we have a series of monitoring wells there that we check regularly to make sure the water is clean.”

Because the large area needed to be fenced in, the city council suggested adding elk, to both help perpetuate the region’s elk population and to keep grasses down in the park.

“The DNR agreed that adding in the animals was a good idea, and the state had no problem with us raising elk, so that’s what we set out to do,” Duff said. “The treated wastewater is safe for the elk and doesn’t harm them at all, and they have such a nice large area to live in.”

The elk have arrived at the park from several different places. Some of the elk are from Michigan providers, including the now long-defunct, short-lived Project Nature, an attempt at an exotic wildlife park in the Pigeon River valley in the ’80s. When it closed, its elk were donated to the city of Gaylord. A few others were purchased from a location in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, while several were transferred in when Clinch Park Zoo in Traverse City closed in 2006.

Today, 32 elk and 14 fallow and sika deer roam the acreage, said Ed Tholl, an employee of Gaylord’s Department of Public Works. Tholl, who has been with the city for 28 years, serves as the elk’s main caretaker.

While most of the elk born within the park are raised by their mother as they would be in the wild, one calf was abandoned by her elk mother, and it fell to Tholl and his co-workers to take care of her. “We bottle-fed her and soon got her feeling better, and we named her Sunflower,” Tholl said. “She was really friendly and would come up to us looking for treats. But other than Sunflower, the elk are really mostly like a herd of cattle, and of course we treat them like wild animals for the most part, since that’s what they are.”

One way in which the elk are tended is in their feeding. The herd is fed on a regular schedule, eating bales of hay as well as special nutritional pellets. And they eat plenty of it; some of the males (bulls) can weigh up to 800 pounds.

“We supplement their usual food with corn, and then in the fall, some treats like sugar beets, which they love,” Duff said. The elk also have their own local veterinarian who keeps an eye on the animals for any illness, injuries, or lethargy. But other than care and feeding, the elk are allowed to roam, fight, mate and live out their life cycle in the park without intervention — but with plenty of observation.

“We have several different viewing areas where you can see the elk,” Duff said. “And they’re not elusive elk — they’re pretty much [within view] all the time.”

Turkeys also join the elk gang in the fall, Tholl said; there’s a flock that winters over in the park each year and then departs in the spring. A few fox have been sighted, plus the usual complement of squirrels and other small mammals. So there’s plenty to see year-round, although the best times for viewing the elk in action is in spring, when there’s plenty of new green growth for the elk to eat, and fall, when the males are busily trying to impress the females for mating season.

“The park is really popular,” Tholl said. “I travel around northern Michigan quite a bit, and people always ask me about the elk park. It’s really relaxing to work with the elk, and they’re fun to watch. Other people think so too — you might see 25 to 50 people watching on an average summer evening or weekend.”

To learn more about the Gaylord City Elk Park, visit www.gaylordmichigan.net/elk-viewing-40, or call (800) 345-8621.

See the Elk
There are many vantage points to view Gaylord’s resident gang of elk, but these three are particularly hot elk-viewing spots: 

1. The designated elk-viewing area on East Sturgeon Valley Road, eight miles east of Vanderbilt; look for the DNR sign.

2. In the Pigeon River Country State Forest, a little under a mile north of the Clark Bridge Road and Osmun Road intersection.

3. Three miles north of Sturgeon Valley Road on Fontinalis Road; look for a modest-sized parking area overlooking a field.

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