Clam Lake Wisconsin Elk Herd: Northern Wisconsin Elk in The Chequamegon National Forest
As of spring 2016, approximately 165 elk will make up the main herd near Clam Lake and a second smaller herd located near Butternut. Although they currently occupy approximately 90 square miles of the designated elk range, 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. Primary habitat used by the elk consists of aspen and pine forests interspersed with forest openings, lowland conifers and water bodies.
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.
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 (June 2016):
Winter 2015-16: Last winter was one of the mildest ever recorded in northern Wisconsin with only 23 winter severity points (number of days with a temperature low of 0 degrees F or colder plus the number of days with 18 inches of snow depth or greater) for Winter, Wisconsin. The previous winter (2014/2015) recorded 46 and the record breaking 2013/2014 winter was 167 points. Any winter of 80 or greater points is considered a “severe winter” from a deer survivability standpoint. Mild winters with early spring “green-ups” typically result in good elk productivity and survival.
Population Status: From 130 trail cameras in the Clam Lake camera grid, a ratio of 43 calves per 100 cows was observed; this indicates an increasing population with approximately 60 percent calf survival rate. Using birth rates for different cow age classes from data collected since 2002 we estimated that there would be 35 elk calves born across the entire Clam Lake Elk Range this year. By the end of June 2016 we expect approximately165 elk in the Clam Lake herd. With our early spring and lush vegetative growth conditions are favorable for good survivorship this year as well.
Currently there are 59 elk with working radio collars in the Clam Lake Elk Range. Since mid-May 2015, there were 7 observed mortalities; 3 due to wolves, 2 due to vehicle collisions, 1 in a rut fight, and 1 under investigation for poaching. We observed 6 adult elk losses from mid-May 2015 to mid-May 2016. This is slightly below the average 7 adult losses observed from 2009/2010 to 2014/2015.
Elk Research on the Clam Lake Herd: A collaborative effort by WI DNR and the US-Forest Service (USFS) and the general public placed 155 trail cameras on a 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. Steps are underway to have this camera survey implemented in the field primarily by citizen volunteers.
Elk Habitat Improvements: Eight different elk forage openings totaling 60 acres in size were created and another 102 acres were mowed on the Flambeau River State Forest (FRSF) and on the Sawyer County Forest in 2015. Telemetry and observations have verified elk use on these managed acres. During 2016, another 30 acres will be planted and another 163 acres will be mowed.
WI DNR foresters set up timber sales on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (CNNF) for the USFS under the cooperative “Good Neighbor Authority”. The USFS is also going through the National Environmental Protection Act review process to cut 6,300 acres of aspen within the “Black/Torch” Project. WI DNR foresters have already set up salvage cut timber sales in the Moose Lake area to recover timber damaged by the 2014 wind storm. Furthermore, the USFS continues to mow wildlife openings and ¼ of the ELF Line (total acreage of the ELF line is 360 acres) each year. Timber harvest occurring on National, State and County Forest, and on Industrial Forest and private lands, are creating exceptional forage and predator escape habitat, and preparing quality habitat for the Kentucky elk anticipated to arrive in winter/spring 2017.
Getting ready for Kentucky Elk: During the next 2-3 years, the Kentucky elk translocation project will focus on adding up to 75 new elk to the Clam Lake herd. To accomplish this, all elk must be health tested and acclimated to the area prior to release. Site preparations are underway for the construction of a seven acre health testing and quarantine facility on the Flambeau River State Forest (FRSF). A great deal of work is involved in this undertaking including vegetation removal, site preparation, recycling of materials, and more. The facility will consist of a double walled, 10-foot high, three compartment facility that will be constructed by a private fencing contractor this summer/fall. Our goal is to have the entire facility complete by mid-fall. If all goes as well as it has during the first two years of the elk reintroduction effort, elk arrival would be expected by early spring of 2017.
We received some welcome help in preparing the quarantine site included volunteers from the UW-Stevens Point Chapter of the Society of American Foresters. They, along with elk project staff and citizen volunteers, helping cut down trees along the fence line alleyways during the weekend of March 2nd. In addition, on the weekend of March 16th volunteers from the UW-Madison Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society helped take down the Thornapple/Haystack acclimation pen so that the woven wire from that pen could be recycled for use on the new quarantine pen.
Partnership Efforts: The WI DNR and USFS are cooperating under the Good Neighbor Authority and this effort should continue to improve elk habitat well into the future. Other examples of partnership efforts were the volunteer help on the quarantine site by the UW-SP and UW-Madison student chapters listed above.
Future Focus: During upcoming months, WI DNR and partners will dismantle and move elk pen components and handling equipment from the Jackson County quarantine facility to the new FRSF pen site. In addition, the elk program staff will be developing additional wildlife habitat improvement projects where the state has land management responsibility. These will not only benefit elk, but other species of wildlife as well. Elk program staff gave an elk presentation to the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Youth Conservation Corps in June. This group is scheduled to help with elk habitat work later in August. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation volunteers are planning to help place the fabric fence barrier on the FRSF quarantine pen later in September.
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.
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 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!