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- Contact information
- For information on elk, contact:
- Kevin Wallenfang
Deer and Elk Ecologist
Bureau of Wildlife Management
Elk in Wisconsin
Read more about the history of elk in Wisconsin and the current reintroduction effort.
Elk (Cervus elaphus) once ranged over most of North America and throughout Wisconsin. They were extirpated from Wisconsin in the mid to late 1800s with the onset of European settlement due to over hunting and a rapid decline in habitat. Historic records show elk once inhabited at least 50 of the state's 72 counties. An attempt at bringing elk back to the state in the 1930s failed because of poaching and the last four elk were reportedly killed in 1948. Today however, most of the suitable elk habitat is in the northern and central forest regions of the state.
Early reintroduction efforts
In 1989, the department was directed by the state legislature to explore the feasibility of successfully reintroducing elk, moose and caribou. In the end, it was determined that an elk reintroduction effort could succeed, while reintroductions of moose or caribou likely would not. In 1993, the Wisconsin state legislature authorized the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UW-SP) to evaluate the potential for reintroducing elk to the Great Divide District of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (CNNF) near Clam Lake. During February 1995, 25 elk were trapped, held in a quarantine facility while undergoing disease testing and transported to the Clam Lake release site. After being held in a pen for an acclimation period, the elk were released into the CNNF on May 17, 1995. At this time plans were also made, but never carried out, to reintroduce elk to the Black River State Forest near Black River Falls of west central Wisconsin (Jackson County).
Management responsibility of the herd was transferred from the UW-SP to the department in May 1999 after the initial reintroduction study was considered a success. At that time, approximately 40 elk were present in the herd.
Current reintroduction efforts
The department recently wrote a new elk management plan that was quickly put in to motion. The management plan, and current efforts, include the following:
- an agreement is in place with the state of Kentucky to import as many as 150 elk over a 3-5 year period. Of these wild elk:
- up to 75 will be added to the existing Clam Lake herd with a long-term population goal of 1,400 elk; and
- up to 75 will be used to establish a new elk herd in the Black River State Forest with a long-term population goal of 390 elk;
- allow for the assisted dispersal of elk to suitable habitat within the existing elk ranges;
- Recognize the importance of quality habitat and the factors that correspond with reducing predator impacts; and
- Increase the size of the current Clam Lake range to include more and better habitat.
Read more about the current reintroduction effort.
Elk hunting in Wisconsin
When the population size of the Clam Lake herd becomes large enough to be considered stable, a hunting season will be considered and written into the elk management plan. How many years away the prospect of hunting is will depend upon the speed with which the herd grows and whether or not further introductions occur.
An interactive touch screen kiosk has been retrofitted into an existing sign board located at the junction of state highways 77 and GG in Clam Lake, Wisconsin. The kiosk is designed to provide visitors to the area with expansive information about the resident elk herd and their habitat. The program provides information about the history of elk in Wisconsin and even has a video clip of the original elk reintroduction. Most importantly, the program contains other tools and information to help visitors experience elk including wildlife spotting guides, maps and directions to nearby viewing areas.
Clam Lake herd
As of fall 2014, approximately 160 elk were present in the state, comprised of the main herd near Clam Lake and a second smaller herd located near Butternut. Although they currently occupy approximately 90 square miles of the designated elk range, the herd has grown at an average rate of 13 percent annually. However, growth rates have varied from as high as 30 percent to as low as -16 percent since 1995. Primary causes of mortality include predation by wolves and bear and vehicle collisions. Primary habitat used by the elk consists of aspen and pine forests interspersed with forest openings, lowland conifers and water bodies.
- Elk brochure
- Wisconsin elk facts
- Elk herd updates
- Original 2000 Management plan and environmental assessment for the Clam Lake elk herd
- 2012 Clam Lake and Black River Elk Management Plan Amendment
Current management practices are focused on research aimed at securing the future of elk in Wisconsin. Research is utilized for gaining additional knowledge in regards to survival and recruitment rates, habitat use and movement patterns.
Jackson County herd
Along with staying busy working on the reintroduction of elk in to Jackson County, department staff are attending to numerous projects to ensure for the success and sustainability of our Clam Lake herd. Some recent and ongoing projects include:
- posting elk management area signs prior to the deer hunting season to ensure that hunters are aware of elk in the area;
- distributing elk identification sheets to local registration stations and popular establishments to educate hunters prior to deer hunting season;
- retrieving trail cameras that were deployed and looking at captured photos in order to obtain a bull population estimate and assess calf production and survivorship;
- completing habitat work for elk including creating two large wildlife openings in the Flambeau River State Forest that are planted with winter wheat and rye - they will be replanted with clover and timothy next spring or early-summer;
- working on an assisted dispersal of Clam Lake elk to ensure that the entire Clam Lake elk range is utilized; and
- obtaining weekly locations on all currently collared elk including males, females and calves as well as doing a weekly mortality check.
Clam Lake elk range
Based on the habitat suitability model derived from a study by Didier and Porter, the Wisconsin Elk Study Committee (WESCO) determined that the United States Forest Service (USFS) Great Divide District (GDD) of the Chequamegon National Forest (CNF) near Clam Lake was most suited for an elk reintroduction. The Clam Lake elk range was recently expanded by 506 square miles so the CNF-GDD currently consists of 1221 square miles (781,440 acres) in portions of Ashland, Bayfield, Price, Rusk and Sawyer counties in north central Wisconsin. State Highway 77 and county highways GG and M converge near the center of the GDD at the community of Clam Lake. The GDD is mostly under National Forest ownership (81 percent or 370,656 acres). The remaining 19 percent (86,944 acres) is privately owned, with relatively little in agricultural production.
Black River elk range
In December of 2001, the Natural Resources Board (NRB) approved the Black River Elk Herd (BREH) Management Plan. The Black River Elk Range (BRER) is approximately 320 sq. miles and located in the Central Forest region of eastern Jackson County.