Wisconsin’s Elk Herd Has Reached an Important Milestone

Mar 22, 2018

After an extended absence, Wisconsin’s elk reintroduction efforts have brought the population levels to a healthy enough level to allow a very small elk harvest this fall.

In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist takes a brief look at Wisconsin’s largest mammal.

The story of elk in Wisconsin dates back to pre-European settlement, when they ranged across much of the state, not to mention much of North America. They were extirpated, meaning their population was reduced to zero, by overharvest and loss of habitat in the mid to late 1800s. Today, elk are back in Wisconsin. Starting with 25 animals brought into the state in 1995, the population has increased to slightly over 200 animals today. They were introduced in northern Wisconsin near Clam Lake on the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest. They have been extensively studied, carefully managed, and intensively tended. Over the last 20+ years, Wisconsin’s wildlife professionals have learned a lot about how to manage elk, what they need to survive, and what they need to thrive. There has been a lot of support from the public, both hunters and non-hunters, in trying to expand and grow the elk herd in Wisconsin.

On more than one occasion I have had the opportunity to visit the area where the herd was released and still occupies near Clam Lake. The area was chosen for a few reasons, including a very unique artificial management feature, the Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) antenna array opening on the National Forest. The herd has not dispersed far from the site where the release occurred. After intensively studying the herd and its habitat, the decision was made a few years ago to assist the dispersal of a portion of the herd beyond the initial release site. In the center of a large block of high quality managed aspen habitat, a large pen was constructed to hold a small group of elk. Pregnant cow (female) elk were placed in the pen until they gave birth; the area where the calves drop becomes their new home range. Afterwards, the elk were released from this temporary acclimation pen and allowed to roam free in their new home.

This reintroduction has had its share of struggles; animals were lost to car strikes, drownings, poaching and predators, much like many other animals. Regardless, there is no question that Wisconsin’s wildlife management program considers the elk reintroduction a success story. Assisted dispersal and radio collaring calves are examples of efforts that have been made to try to reduce losses and improve survival to help the population expand. In another effort to help boost the expansion rate of the elk herd, Wisconsin entered into an agreement with Kentucky to trap and relocate elk into a couple of locations in Wisconsin where habitat was deemed suitable.

This spring, it was announced that Wisconsin’s elk herd reached an important milestone. Now that the population expanded past 200 individuals, it reached a threshold where a harvest would be allowed so we will see our first legal elk season. Interested hunters will be able to apply for a tag in a random drawing each year. The tags will be very limited to begin with, with only four tags issued to resident non-tribal hunters. This is a “once in a lifetime” tag, so once you draw a tag, you will not be able to apply again. There will be no preference points issued, so each year every applicant will have an equal chance at drawing a tag. The application fee will generate significant license revenue which will help fund important natural resource work. Hunter traffic to the original Clam Lake herd location will undoubtedly bring financial benefits to the local businesses and benefit their economy. The traffic coming into the Clam Lake area to watch elk and listen for elk bugling in autumn has already brought significant tourist dollars to local businesses through the years.

Personally, I am excited to see this day come. Having the opportunity to hunt an elk in Wisconsin like the pioneers and settlers is a sign that we continue to work toward applied and responsible conservation in our state.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the masked biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.