- Contact information
- For information on elk, contact:
- Kevin Wallenfang
Deer and Elk Ecologist
Bureau of Wildlife Management
Frequently asked questions Elk in Wisconsin
- Are elk native to Wisconsin?
Historically, elk inhabited much of Wisconsin, primarily the prairie and oak savannah landscapes of the southern and western portions of the state. However, currently the vast majority of the suitable elk habitat is in the northern and central forest regions of the state. Elk were extirpated during the late 1800s as a result of unregulated harvest and loss of habitat.
- How did the elk reintroduction start?
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UW-SP) undertook the experiment with funding from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. In 1995, 25 radio-collared elk were released into the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest just south of Clam Lake, Wisconsin. Researchers closely followed their movements with radio-telemetry and evaluated their survival, reproduction, feeding habits and dispersal. In May 1999, the UW-SP completed its fieldwork and transferred the management responsibility of the herd to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
- Where are the elk now? How many are there?
The Clam Lake elk herd currently occupies approximately 90 square miles of the designated 1600 square mile Clam Lake elk range. The herd consists of the main herd near Clam Lake and several smaller herds residing near Butternut, Moose Lake and Winter. Primary habitat for the herd consists of aspen and pine forests interspersed with forest openings, lowland conifers and wetlands. The herd has fluctuated over time and the current population is approximately 160 elk as of spring 2016. The population has grown at an average rate of 7 percent per year with some years showing nearly a 30 percent increase while a few years have resulted in negative population growth due to severe winter conditions resulting in high mortality and low recruitment.
In 2015, reintroduction efforts began near Black River Falls in Jackson County. Their movements are being monitored to determine their preferred habitat type, home range, herd growth, and other aspects of their release. Over the coming years as many as 75 elk will be released here.
- Will the population eventually expand statewide?
The Wisconsin DNR is not undertaking a statewide reintroduction. Rather, elk will be managed in a few relatively small, localized herds. As a result of the large-scale conversion of native grasslands, oak-savannahs and forests to agriculture, plus the ever-expanding development and human occupancy of the land, few patches of suitable habitat exist today. Expansion of elk use within the designated elk range has been moderate to date.
- Will elk compete with white-tailed deer?
In Michigan, where a reintroduction of 7 elk in 1918 has since grown to a population of around 800 elk, there has not been a significant negative impact on the white-tailed deer population as a direct result of the elk. Michigan provides a good comparison to Wisconsin because of the similarity of the habitat in the elk range of the two states. The Clam Lake herd similarly has not negatively impacted the deer population in the Chequamegon-Nicolet Forest. In general, elk and deer have different diets during the spring/summer/fall months and while the diet overlaps during the winter, elk and deer prefer to forage in different areas.
- Won't elk cause agricultural damage?
A prerequisite of any potential elk release area is a high proportion of public land. To date, this has helped to minimize the overlap between elk range and croplands. In the Clam Lake area there have been a few situations where elk have caused damage to crops. In each case, the department has worked with the landowner to minimize the problem. Elk are also covered under the Wildlife Damage Abatement and Claims Program, so in an instance where damage is significant, the department is able to financially compensate the landowner for damages, trap and remove the animal, or use other methods to reduce or eliminate the problem.
- Where can I see elk?
Elk are most often seen within the core elk range, primarily centered around Clam Lake. Within the boundaries of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, 81 percent of the property is public, providing ample opportunity for viewing wildlife. The Forest Service has constructed several viewing areas for wildlife watching. In addition to these viewing areas, good places to see elk are along the many forest roads, highways, forest openings and recent logging sites. Elk are most active during the early morning and evening so these are the best time periods to catch a glimpse of an elusive elk. Elk may also be seen in the Flambeau River State Forest, Sawyer County Forest and Jackson County Forest. The elk in these areas are fewer in number and have only recently been put there, so it is difficult to provide good advice on where they can be seen.
- Will elk damage native vegetation?
Research in Clam Lake has not shown any significant damage done by elk to native plant communities. Any time a species is placed upon the landscape, there will be an ecosystem effect. However, elk are a native species to Wisconsin and have a legitimate place within the ecosystem.
- Are efforts being made to add more elk to the herd?
- Does reintroduction of wild animals pose a health risk to other wildlife or domestic livestock?
Elk can be susceptible to a variety of diseases just like cattle or deer. Cause of death is investigated to the best of our abilities, but is often difficult because assessments of mortality require intact and fresh carcasses. This is a rare finding when working with wildlife. To date, we have detected nothing to indicate that the Clam Lake elk herd has experienced any broad scale health problems related to infectious or parasitic disease. A strict protocol is being followed for the most recent reintroduction effort. Before any animals are brought into Wisconsin, they undergo health testing and a quarantine period. Each animal is tested for diseases, including Tuberculosis and Brucellosis which affect livestock as well as captive and wild deer and elk herds. The source herd for the reintroduction was very carefully chosen. The elk being released came from a low risk CWD source herd.
- Will there eventually be public hunting opportunities with the elk herd?
Current rules require that the Clam Lake herd must reach a population size of at least 200 elk before a hunt can be considered. Likewise, the Jackson County herd must reach 150 animals. Just when the herds will reach these requirements depends upon the speed with which the herds grow.
- Since there are so few elk, are they classified as endangered or threatened?
Elk are classified as protected, not as an endangered or threatened species in Wisconsin. Since there is no hunting season on elk, it is illegal to shoot an elk. Hunters, especially in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Flambeau River State Forest, Sawyer County Forest and Jackson County Forest need to be able to distinguish an elk from a deer. Read this handout for information about the physical similarities and differences between elk and white-tailed deer.
- Can I legally feed elk?
No. It is illegal to feed elk in Wisconsin. If elk are coming into feed intended for deer or other wildlife, the feeding activity must cease for a period of no less than 30 days. For more information about the effects of feeding wildlife, visit the DNR Wildlife Health page.