By John Barnes
GAYLORD - The phone call came on a Saturday night, just after dark, two days after Thanksgiving. It would not be the last this weekend.
This is "The Big Wild" and prime poaching season for Michigan's Monarch of the North, the Rocky Mountain elk.
It would be a busy weekend for Department of Natural Resources Officer Nick Torsky, a 15-year veteran.
The Saturday call came after a day of deer hunting with his 15-year-old son. Torsky went to the site, which yielded a gut pile and three elk feet, dumped near the Pigeon River Country State Forest, the heart of Michigan's elk range. The site is near the Treetops Resort's north courses.
The day's temperature averaged barely above freezing, twice as warm as the day before.
Temperature can be important in gathering evidence. Nothing more should be said.
Sunday night's call yielded a full carcass, an exceptionally large 620-pound cow elk, killed with a single well-placed shot that hit the heart and lungs. The elk was left at roadside, otherwise untouched.
The same day, a perhaps three-year-old bull with five antler tines on each side was reported, badly decomposed, there maybe three weeks. Poached? Gored by another bull elk? The investigation continues.
Then Monday came an email. Deer hides are in the Sturgeon River, near old Vanderbilt Bridge. Investigators find the head and hide of a bull elk, its antlers removed. It could be related to the feet and remnants found two days earlier, about a mile away. Both seemed to be dumped about the same time, based on blood and biology analysis.
These four elk cases are in addition to two during the first week of the firearms deer-hunting season, which began Nov. 15.
But at what cost?
Minimal, by law, compared to poaching more plentiful deer.
Poaching a deer can cost $1,000, plus $500 to $750 per antler tine, under a new state law.
Kill an eight-point buck illegally: $5,000 plus other courts costs, hunting license revocations, and at least five days in jail. Illegally kill a trophy buck with 12 points: $10,000.
Kill a 6-by-6 elk - a "royal" with six tines per antler, 12 total, a herd master - it's a flat $1,500.
That doesn't make sense to conservation officers whose job it is to protect Michigan's wapiti, a Shawnee and Cree word meaning "white rump."
The stiffer deer penalties were enacted in February. DNR spokesman Ed Golder said the department advocated "for a broader conversation about other species."
Lawmakers' focus at the time was on the more frequent poaching of deer, Golder said.
"We remain open to having that conversation" about heightened penalties for illegally killing elk and other prized game animals, Golder said.
Elk are considered among the crown jewels of Michigan's outdoors, majestic animals that move with grace through forests. Herds are centered in the Pigeon River Country State Forest - which includes parts of Otsego, Cheboygan and Montmorency counties - but they extend well outside the park's nearly 100,000 acres. Atlanta is the self-described Elk Capital of Michigan.
The animals, once eliminated from the state, are the lineage of seven elk brought here in 1918 to reestablish their presence. They have become a popular tourism attraction, feeding in grazing areas designed to provide sustenance and opportunities for visitors to view them.
Getting a permit to hunt this year's estimated 668 elk - down from almost 1,200 since 2008, but within management goals - is like winning a lottery. Almost 30,000 eligible hunters applied for any-sex permits. Thirty were approved, 0.1 percent. Another 14,000 applied to hunt antlerless elk. Seventy scored.
Firearms deer hunters who spread across the woods in the back-half of November often find remnants of poached elk, said DNR Lt. Jim Gorno of the Gaylord office.
But Officer Torsky, who has worked the area for seven years, said he has never seen as many potential poaching cases in such a short period.
"We've had more cases in this November in an entire hunting season than I can remember," Torsky said.
In one of the cases near the beginning of the firearms deer hunting season, a hunter self-reported killing a large bull elk he thought was a deer.
He was inexperienced.The DNR is willing to cut him a break. "It is fair. The guy who accidentally shoots is in total agreement. 'Hey, I have to pay for that elk,'" Gorno says.
In the second case, an Oakland County man was later arrested for poaching a bull elk with four antler tines on each side. The elk would not yet be a herd bull, master of his harem, but he might have become one.
The man will face criminal charges, which can include a minimum 30 days in jail.