Lone elk

What is the status of the proposed elk reintroduction? Find out!

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Contact information
For information on elk, contact:
Kevin Wallenfang
Wildlife biologist
Bureau of Wildlife Management

Elk in Wisconsin


Elk (Cervus canadensis) 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. Elk primarily inhabited the prairie and oak-savannah communities of the southern portion of the state. 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. The large scale conversion of land in the south from prairie to agriculture has resulted in little to no suitable habitat in this area.


In 1989 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was directed by the state legislature to explore the feasibility of successfully reintroducing elk, moose and caribou. The resulting publication "Feasibility Assessment for the Reintroduction of North American Elk, Moose and Caribou into Wisconsin" (Parker 1990) determined that an elk reintroduction effort could succeed, while reintroductions of moose or caribou likely would not.

Collared cow

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 (GDD) of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (CNNF) near Clam Lake. During February 1995, 25 elk were trapped, held in a quarantine facility for 90 days while undergoing rigorous disease testing and transported to the Clam Lake release site. After being held in a pen for a 2-week acclimation period, the elk were released into the CNNF on May 17, 1995.

Management responsibility of the herd was transferred from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in May 1999 after the initial reintroduction study was considered a success. At that time, approximately 40 elk were present in the herd.

Current herd

As of June 2013, approximately 180 elk were present in the state, comprised of the main herd near Clam Lake and a second smaller herd located near Butternut. 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.

Elk calf

The elk herd currently occupies approximately 90 mi² of the designated 1,112 mi² elk range. The population consists of the main herd near Clam Lake and a smaller, isolated herd residing west of Butternut. Primary habitat used by the elk consists of aspen and pine forests interspersed with forest openings, lowland conifers and water bodies.

Current management practices by the DNR 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. This research will be essential for future management decisions so that managers can best address the needs of the elk herd.

Last revised: Friday February 28 2014