Clam Lake Wisconsin Elk Herd Information: Northern Wisconsin Elk Reintroduction Project, Chequamegon National Forest
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.
The Clam Lake elk herd currently occupies approximately 90 square miles of the designated 1600 square mile Clam Lake elk range [PDF]. 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 June 2015. 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.
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 [PDF].
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.
History of Reintroduction of Elk to Northern Wisconsin
Elk were reintroduced to the wild in Wisconsin in 1995, through a partnership between the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Today, more and more visitors come to the Clam Lake area seeking a glimpse of an elk or for the opportunity of hearing the wild bugle of a bull in the fall.
Please take care and take heed of elk crossing signs and flashing lights posted on area roads marking some common locations of members of the Clam Lake elk herd. Please drive safely in elk crossing zones.
Clam Lake Elk Herd Update (April 2016):
Population Status: The past two winters have been mild resulting in favorable overwinter conditions for elk and other species of wildlife in northern Wisconsin. In addition, northern Wisconsin experienced an early spring green up in 2015 and it looks like the same will happen in 2016. Right now (pre-calving), the population estimate is approximately 130 elk within the 1,620 square mile Clam Lake Elk Range. We anticipate approximately 35 calves will be born this spring. The overall population estimate is based on field observations and radio-telemetry and preliminary information coming from the camera-grid system.
Elk Recruitment and Mortality: It has been our experience that both calf production and survival rates are at the highest during years following mild winters with early springs. Based on spring conditions thus far, there is optimism for a good year of elk recruitment. Last year, there was some concern that recruitment may have been influenced by a carryover affect from the record-setting very severe winter from 2013-2014. WI DNR elk staff have confirmed a few elk mortalities from vehicles, including an unexpected train collision. Fortunately, there were no serious human-related injuries associated with these collisions. In addition, there were some (3 known during the 2015-16 winter) elk-related mortalities attributed to wolf predation but generally fewer compared to past years. It is often difficult to know if these elk were already in a weakened condition and were more vulnerable to predation. There were no known elk related mortalities from predation this past winter in the newly expanded elk range (508 square miles) that includes a large block of state, county and industrial forest land that has the most abundant aspen resource in the region. Elk prefer aspen timber stands in the 1-15 year age class; this provides both good forage and escape cover from predators. The past two mild winters were a definite bonus for elk and this likely improved the ability of elk to evade large predators. Although wolves and bear do kill elk, the WI DNR and partners are working to improve elk habitat to encourage them to spread out across the Clam Lake elk range. This will help reduce the concentration of elk in areas where they are most susceptible to predation.
Elk Research on the Clam Lake Herd: A collaborative effort by WI DNR and our partners placed 156 trail cameras on a scientific grid overlaying the elk activity area around Clam Lake. A primary goal of this research is to lay the foundation for an accurate, precise, cost-effective, and sustainable elk monitoring system that will inform elk harvest management in perpetuity. One of the objectives towards that goal is to test a number of camera trap-based population estimators against known numbers of collared elk. The cameras will be visited every 2 – 4 months to switch out the secure digital cards, batteries, and clear vegetation. All photos are reviewed and screened through the formal Snapshot Wisconsin process and elk staff will try to determine individual identification of elk in photos. A variety of camera-based population estimators will be evaluated to estimate the elk population size in the Clam Lake herd.
Elk Habitat Improvements: Eight different elk forage openings totaling 54 acres in size were developed on the Flambeau River State Forest (FRSF) and on the Sawyer County Forest in 2015. This required extensive work including rock removal, grubbing, spreading lime and fertilizer and seeding. The seed mixture included timothy, orchard grass and northern white and alsike clover. This WI DNR led project would not have been possible without critical funding and support from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), WI DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Town of Winter, and Sawyer County Forestry Department. There was an excellent wildlife response, including elk, to these habitat improvements.
Sustainable forest management (timber cutting) is happening on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (CNNF), State and County Forest, Industrial Forest and private lands that is expected to positively impact elk and elk habitat long into the future. In addition, many of these different land management agencies are doing specific work to improve elk habitat like mowing of trails and the old U.S. Navy ELF line. These management actions create good forage for wildlife, including elk.
Partnership Efforts: Last summer, WI DNR partnered with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to evaluate several potential sites for a quarantine facility to hold and release Kentucky elk in 2017 and 2018. The purpose behind this is to optimize the opportunity for Kentucky elk to mix with resident elk to supplement herd growth and to better diversify the population genetics of the Clam Lake Elk herd. Based on the siting criteria, it was agreed that the best site was on the Flambeau River State Forest. It is understood that this will require future trapping and relocation of some of these new elk to the northern part of the elk range near the community of Clam Lake.
The WI DNR and the USFS entered into a new partnership under the Good Neighbor Authority. This partnership provides a way for the state to assist the USFS to increase the level of accomplishment, most notably timber sales, and locally on the CNNF. By working with the CNNF to more fully implement their approved land management plan, the amount of wood being brought to market should increase – a desired outcome that elk partners and other stakeholders in the forestry community have been voicing for many years. This agreement builds on the good work already being done by the CNNF with their limited resources. Successful implementation will also achieve other plan objectives such as desired wildlife habitat. This is expected to benefit elk that regularly use this valuable National Forest.
Several youth-focused educational events were held to share elk information like to 1,200 middle school students for the Log A Load For Kids Foundation program near Hayward.
The RMEF hosted several important fund raising events including the annual Bugling Days community event near Clam Lake in early September. The WI DNR and U.S. Forest participated in these events to share elk updates.
Future Focus: During the next year, WI DNR and partners will construct the quarantine facility on the FRSF to hold a total of approximately 75 elk over the two year period of 2017 and 2018. In addition to constructing the pen facility, dismantling and moving of elk handling equipment from the Black River Falls quarantine facility will take place after the 2016 group of Kentucky elk are released into eastern Jackson County. In addition, the WI DNR will be working on developing additional wildlife habitat improvement projects where the WI DNR has land management responsibility that will not only benefit elk but other species of wildlife as well.
Public Viewing Opportunities:
Elk can be seen in many habitats throughout their range. Best viewing times are dawn and dusk. The most popular viewing period is September and October during the mating season when elk are often feeding in openings. Summer observations are possible, but heavy leaf cover makes viewing more difficult.
It is a good idea to use a National Forest map or county maps to find your way. Road conditions will vary with the season, so drivers should exercise caution before attempting to drive these routes.
Elk can sometimes be viewed along Highway 77 and CTH GG (south to Loretta) in the Clam Lake area (southwest and south of Clam Lake, respectively).
Wildlife viewing areas have been established through a cooperative effort between the Forest Service and RMEF to view many species of wildlife, including elk.
Elk viewing is not confined to the designated areas and routes. Many grassy meadows have been improved for deer, elk and other wildlife that use this type of habitat.
People can disturb elk by approaching too closely. Elk should always be appreciated and viewed from a distance. This will enhance other viewers’ chances to see elk. While searching for elk, always respect the animals and private landowners’ rights and privacy. Whenever you choose to look for elk, plan to set aside some time. Remember these are wild animals. They are on their own schedule, coming and going when and where their needs and desires take them.
History of Elk Project:
Elk (Cervus elaphus), Wisconsin’s largest native mammal, once ranged over most of North America and throughout Wisconsin. They were extirpated in the mid to late 1800’s with the onset of human settlement due to over hunting and a rapid decline in habitat. Elk were last recorded in Wisconsin in the 1886 and 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 1930’s failed because of poaching and the last four elk were reportedly killed in 1948. Although elk primarily inhabited the prairie/savannah lands of the southern portion of the state, today, most of the currently suitable elk habitat is in the north. This change is due to the large scale conversion of land in the south from prairie to agriculture.
In 1989 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) was directed by the State Legislature to explore the likelihood 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.
In 1993 the Wisconsin State Legislature authorized the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to evaluate the potential for reintroducing elk to the Great Divide District of the Chequamegon National Forest near Clam Lake. During February 1995, 25 elk were trapped in Michigan, held in a quarantine facility for 90 days while undergoing rigorous disease testing, and shipped to the Clam Lake release site. After being held in a pen for a 2-week acclimation period, the elk were released into the Chequamegon National Forest May 17, 1995.
As noted in Kathryn A. Kahler’s article “A Herd in the Balance”, “the first four years of research on the experimental herd were headed up by the late Dr. Ray Anderson, then a professor at UW-Stevens Point. Anderson and his students oversaw the careful research and methodologies that would form the routines followed by today’s DNR elk project team. Those first few years, with enthusiastic support from thousands of volunteers and benefactors, saw such success that Anderson, in a 1998 research report predicted that “at the current rate of growth, the herd could number approximately 500 in 11 years.”
That optimism has been tempered by a kind of “one step forward, two steps back” reality. Prior to calving, the herd in the spring of 2010 was 131 animals, a far cry from Anderson’s prediction. Even so, there is reason for optimism amid elk enthusiasts of all ilks, some of whom look forward to a year when the population reaches a target goal of 200 animals that might allow a limited bull hunting season.
“We are at least a couple of years away from that,” says Stowell. “Once we get closer we’ll need to establish a hunting education program for successful applicants. An elk that weighs several hundred pounds is much harder to kill than its smaller deer cousin, so we’ll need to educate hunters about elk biology and caution them against shooting at multiple targets if they think the first one didn’t go down.”
Until then Stowell and his crew will continue with the seasonal routines that make up their “elk year” – spring calf-searching, summer habitat improvement, fall bugling observation, winter trapping and year-round telemetry monitoring and mortality tracking.”
Elk are classified as protected, not as an endangered or threatened species in the State of Wisconsin. Since there is no hunting season on elk, it is illegal to shoot an elk. Hunters, especially in the Chequamegon National Forest, need to be able to distinguish an elk from a deer.
The second most common cause of elk death after predation (primarily wolf and bear) is vehicle collision, with over 30 verified deaths since 1995. Six years ago, DNR elk biologists launched a three-pronged effort to prevent elk-vehicle collisions. First, they began using a reflective, blaze orange radio collar on cows to increase their visibility during the dark and dusk periods when most vehicle collisions occur. Second, they moved their winter trapping efforts farther away from state and county highways, drawing elk away from roads during the higher risk period of winter.
Lastly, in December 2006 with the help of volunteers and a grant from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, they installed an elk crossing warning system in three zones at the center of the Clam Lake elk activity area. Each zone is one-half mile wide and two miles long along portions of State Highway 77 where most elk vehicle collisions had been observed. A flashing light on each of the cautionary highway signs is triggered by the elks’ own radio collars when they come within a mile of a receiving station. There are three adjoining receiving station zones spread over six miles of highway where both elk collisions and telemetry have identified high risk areas.
Elk Education Kiosk:
An interactive touch screen kiosk was recently 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. The kiosk was made possible in part by a state grant from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The kiosk was designed and installed by Imperial Multimedia a Wisconsin-based company that specializes in interpreting nature and the outdoors. This technology was first put to test in Wisconsin State Parks back in 2003 and subsequently has been rolled out across the nation in various venues including state parks, zoos and aquariums.
While Imperial Multimedia did most of the heavy lifting to make the project possible they received invaluable help from the DNR’s Elk Biologists Laine Stowell and Matt McKay along with local help from Bud Rubeck and other local volunteers who donated time and materials to reconstruct the site. This tool should help educate and guide National Forest Visitors to a safe and meaningful experience.
The Elk Information Kiosk can be found in front (or on the east side) of the Clam Lake Junction gas station in Clam Lake Community Park. The Community Park (kiosk) is handicap accessible.
Wisconsin Elk Herd Online:
- Wisconsin DNR Clam Lake Herd Updates
- Elk in Wisconsin FAQ’s
- Elk Identification Sheet
- Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation National Site
- Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Wisconsin Web Page
- Wisconsin Elk Reintroduction PDF
- Wisconsin Elk Management Plan
- Clam Lake, Wisconsin Elk Education Kiosk in Downtown Clam Lake has additional elk information
For more information on Elk in Wisconsin, please contact:
10220 State Hwy 27
Hayward, WI 54843
715-634-9658 x 3527
Wisconsin DNR Elk Website
Fall Elk Bugling
Elk bugling is a special feature of the fall rut usually starting in late August and running through late September in the Clam Lake, Wisconsin area. As the big bull elk prepare to attract female cows, they let out bellows, which range from deep tones to high-pitch squeals to grunts. On fall nights in the Chequamegon National Forest around Clam Lake, Wisconsin, the distinctive sounds of elk rutting can often be heard. Listen to the remarkable, unforgettable sounds of native, free ranging bull elk bugling in a Northern Wisconsin wilderness. If you’ve never heard the bugle of the bull elk during the fall rutting period, you are in for an experience that is at once thrilling and haunting. We invite you to join us in Clam Lake during the month of September and experience this unique event! You won’t soon forget the sounds of elk bulging as they echo through the forest and across the lakes of Northern Wisconsin!