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

Frequently asked questions about elk in Wisconsin

Are elk native to Wisconsin?

Historically, elk inhabited much of Wisconsin, having primarily inhabited 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.

What was the four-year study?

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 field work 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 elk herd currently occupies approximately 90 mi² of the designated 1,112 mi² elk range. The herd consists of the main herd near Clam Lake and a smaller, isolated herd residing west of Butternut. Primary habitat for the herd consists of aspen and pine forests interspersed with forest openings, lowland conifers and wetlands. The herd has grown to approximately 180 elk as of June 2013. The population has grown at an average rate of 13 percent per year with some years showing nearly a 30 percent increase while a few years have resulted in negative population growth.

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Will the population eventually expand statewide?

The Department of Natural Resources (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, few patches of suitable habitat exist today. Expansion of elk use within the designated elk range has been moderate to date. Therefore, the DNR is currently evaluating an "assisted dispersal" project to establish elk herds in areas of suitable habitat within the current designated elk range boundaries where elk have previously not occupied.

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 700-1000 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?

The department, in conjunction with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, has developed a map of biologically and socially suitable elk range in Wisconsin. A prerequisite of any potential elk release area is a high proportion of public land. This will minimize the overlap between elk range and crop lands.

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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 road, highways, forest openings, recent logging sites and the remains of the ELF power line. Elk are most active during the early morning and evening time periods so these are the best time periods to catch a glimpse of an elusive elk.

Will elk damage native vegetation?

Research in Clam Lake has not shown any significant damage done by elk to native plants 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.

How will it be decided if and when there will be additional releases of elk?

A release protocol will be established whereby decisions will be made about further releases. Before any releases occur, there would first need to be endorsements of the proposal by local governments, preparation of a site-specific elk management plan and environmental assessment, public participation of the management plan and approval by the department. Currently, there is a proposal to reintroduce elk into the central forest of Wisconsin.

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Does reintroduction of wild animals pose a health risk to other wildlife or domestic livestock?

Elk can be hosts to a variety of diseases just like cattle or deer. However, a strict health protocol was followed before the Clam Lake release and would be followed for any further introductions. Before any animals are brought into Wisconsin, they undergo a ninety-day quarantine in the state of capture and are tested for a large variety of diseases. There has been no indication that the Clam Lake herd has experienced any health problems related to an infectious disease.

Will there eventually be public hunting opportunities with the elk herd?

When the population size of the Clam Lake herd becomes large enough to be considered stable, a hunting season will be considered and will be written into the elk management plan. How many years away the prospect of hunting will depend upon the speed with which the herd grows and whether or not further introductions occur.

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, need to be able to distinguish an elk from a deer.

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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.

Last revised: Wednesday October 30 2013