Once a week for the past two years, retired Topeka resident Dan Byl, 63, has made the trek down a steep hill in his backyard near N.W. MacVicar and Interstate 70 to check his trail camera.
The area, a veritable haven for wildlife, has produced many memorable images — white-tailed deer fawns being nursed by their mother, a fox standing stoically on a large rock, a coyote walking through deep snow. However, one day this month — Oct. 7 — produced a pair of images that he will never forget.
While going through his memory card that week on his computer, something unusual stood out to him. No, it wasn’t the nice buck grazing on forage or the neighborhood children who stopped to pose for the camera. Two images — taken 80 seconds apart — of a large, oddly colored, antlered animal drew his attention.
At first, he jokingly told people he had an elk in his backyard. Surely, it couldn’t have been an elk. The nearest elk herd was 60 miles away at Fort Riley, so why would an elk be in Topeka?
After sending the photographs to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Region 2 office at 300 S.W. Wanamaker, he learned he had captured images of a bull elk.
“I was just astounded,” Byl said. “I have often thought maybe the most fantastic thing that I’d ever see here would be maybe a mountain lion, but it never, never occurred to me that there would ever be an elk pass through here.”
The KDWPT office confirmed not only was the animal was an elk but a second sighting also had occurred in the same area, with tracks also found.
“For it to come this far into town, you know, to see it out in the countryside, I wouldn’t be totally shocked,” Byl said.
Roger Wolfe, regional wildlife supervisor, said this is only the second time in his 20 years working at the KDWPT Region 2 office he can recall a case where an elk was spotted in Topeka with evidence to back up the claim.
“Usually I think what you typically see are younger bulls, they get run off by the mature bulls in the herd, so they go out looking for, you know, this time of the year is during the rut, during breeding season,” Wolfe said, “so what happens oftentimes is we see them show up in domestic elk pens, which is not a good thing necessarily.”
Matt Peek, a furbearer research biologist and elk program coordinator for the KDWPT in Emporia, agreed an elk traveling to Topeka was a rare occurrence.
“Elk are capable of moving long ways,” Peek said. “As long as we’ve had elk, they’ve been known for showing up a long way from where they’re known to be. It’s probably happened more frequently in the past 10 years.”
According to Peek, the state elk population is now up to about 300 to 350 animals, with some movement back and forth between Oklahoma, Colorado and southwest Kansas. He said the last known elk to reach Topeka was in 2001.
“We have had a few other elk, a collared elk that was a study in Fort Riley moved up to northeast Kansas and out of the state,” Peek said.
Wolfe said he believes this particular elk was probably run off from the herd in Fort Riley — which Peek estimated to have a population of about 200 — and followed the river to Byl’s backyard. He said the elk may have been domestically raised and had escaped, but this option was unlikely as the elk in the photo had sleek fur, typically only seen in the wild.
Wolfe said wild elk mixing with domesticated herds has been a problem for the KDWPT, because the wild animals can bring disease and contaminate the herd. One such illness, chronic wasting disease, has especially been a problem recently in northwest Kansas, where populations of elk, as well as white-tailed and mule deer, have been afflicted with the disease. In 1998, when the elk population at Fort Riley reached even higher numbers than today, the KDWPT had to administer a herd-reduction program because of conflicts with private landowners and disease spread by stray elk.
Because of the risk of cross-contamination to domesticated and wild deer populations, Wolfe said the KDWPT would euthanize a wild elk in this area if it was found. He said the department preferred if a hunter were to take the animal. Statewide elk hunting permits outside of Fort Riley are available through the KDWPT, with archery season running until Dec. 31 and firearm season from Dec. 4-15 and Jan. 1-March 15, 2014. The permits, which Wolfe said were a product of farmers wanting to get rid of stray elk that had wandered into their crops, have been available for about 10 years and weren’t an option for landowners in 1998.
“The risk in doing that is that you buy the elk tag today and the elk is gone tomorrow,” Wolfe said. “They don’t necessarily hang very long oftentimes. They’re out looking for cows (female elk) this time of year. It’s pretty unusual for them to hang very long in one place unless there’s some attraction there.”
Wolfe said this was the third recent sighting in the region, with bulls also found in Osage City and Clay County. He said the other two had been killed.
Because Byl’s camera was located inside Topeka city limits, he wouldn’t have been able to shoot the elk. Still, the thrill of knowing something so rare happened in his backyard was enough excitement for him.
“I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing,” Byl said. “I don’t think I’ll ever see an elk come through here again.”
Area readers submit elk photos
The story received a lot of response from readers on Facebook, CJOnline and by e-mail. Two readers sent similar photos of what appear to be elk, which they captured on trail cameras, one taken in Pottawotamie County on Oct. 4 — just a few days before Byl’s photo — and one in rural Mayetta, which was taken last year.
“It could quite possibly be the same elk, but hard to tell from his pictures,” said Heim, an avid bowhunter, in an email.
Dennis Degand, the other reader who sent in photos, sent two images of an elk that he says was about four miles from his house in Mayetta — not far from Prairie Band Casino & Resort.
“He hung around for several months and finally left the area last May,” Degand said in the email.
If you have a photograph taken recently of an elk in northeast Kansas, please send the photo along with the date and location it was taken to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also report it to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Region 2 office in Topeka by calling (785) 273-6740.