Cranberry growers are working with the state in an effort to establish a fencing program to protect their property from the elk that were recently reintroduced to Jackson County.

Two growers had elk on their property within two weeks of the herd being released last summer from their acclimation pen in the Black River State Forest – events that did not surprise members of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association.

“It’s not just cranberry growers. It can and will be an issue for all farmers in Jackson County,” said Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. “I think all of agriculture has a concern about it. We’re just disappointed our concerns weren’t taken seriously when we raised them when the proposals (for reintroduction) were being put together.

“Sure enough, it didn’t take elk long to find cranberry marshes as a suitable area to occupy … We told them it was going to happen, and they didn’t wait long.”

One Jackson County Cranberry grower already has applied for assistance in light of elk-related damage through the state’s Wildlife Damage and Abatement funds – compensation that’s been available because of elk since 2001. Elk are known to damage cranberry vines and dikes by digging and rooting, and Jackson County is the second-largest cranberry-growing county in the state, along with nearby Monroe County.

The DNR currently is in the midst of working on a new program to provide for fencing agreements in Jackson County’s designated elk range area. The language would be in addition to already existing policy that allows property owners to solicit fencing to protect other crops from deer and other animal damage, an initiative funded through hunting license surcharges.

Tom Hauge, the DNR’s director of the wildlife management program, said the department plans to make a decision on the new elk fencing program by spring.

“(Cranberries) are obviously an important crop produced in the state of Wisconsin and an important economic industry,” Hauge said. “I don’t think it’s elk or cranberries – they’re both important to Jackson County, and we’re trying to do our best to make sure both of those very worthwhile resources can co-exist.”

Twenty-three elk were released in eastern Jackson County in mid-August after Wisconsin and Kentucky officials trapped elk and brought a group back to the county after a years-long effort to reintroduce the animals into their previously native habitat in Wisconsin.

The proposed fencing that would be used to keep out elk would be the same kind used to prevent deer damage – materials that Lochner maintains won’t be durable enough to keep out elk, which are larger and heavier than deer.

“A deer fence isn’t going to keep them out if they want to get in,” he said. “They need to be strong.”

Hauge, however, noted that the fencing used to keep the elk in their acclimation pen after being transported to Wisconsin was deer-proof fencing and suitable.

“The fences that we would be installing these days on cranberry marshes … are very capable of excluding elk,” he said.

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