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.
Current Elk Herd:
The winter of 2013/2014 was particularly hard on Clam Lake elk. Winter Severity Index accumulated 167 points in Winter, WI. This made it the most severe winter on record for this area, surpassing the previous record set in 1995/1996 at 158 points. Sub-zero temperatures started on opening weekend of the 2013 gun deer season and persisted into April, 2014. Snow depths exceeding 30 inches persisted for most of the winter. This combination of cold and snow depth extremes contributed to approximately 22 percent mortality of cows and 20 percent mortality of bulls during this period. Historic average calf mortality is about 50 percent, but was exceeded in 2014 when it was estimated at 85 percent. As a result, we experienced negative herd growth in 2014 with the Clam Lake herd dropping to about 120 animals by late March 2015. If there was little carry over impact on the elk going into the 2014 September elk mating season we would expect about 32 calves born. However, if there are carry-over impacts, we would expect approximately just 19 calves born. On the positive side, the winter of 2014/2015 was mild, with only 46 Winter Severity Index points.
Spring arrived early with winter green-up starting on May 5th south of Hwy 70, and May 7th up on Hwy 77 near Clam Lake. During years with early springs we see lower bear predation, healthy and frisky calves, healthy cows and overall increased survivability. It all depends whether cows had recovered enough by September to be bred. Early indications (June 2015) are that we expect the number of calves born to be closer to the high end of our predicted range, but we’ll wait and see what 2015 tells us.
Elk Research on the Clam Lake Herd: DNR Science Services is initiating a trail camera survey system during the summer of 2015. 156 cameras will be placed in an 81 square mile grid within the elk range. Our hope is that this research will yield new methods for us to monitor and estimate elk populations in the future.
Elk Health & Mortality: We’ve had 22 elk die since March 2014, 11 due to wolves, 2 due to vehicles, 1 due to bear, 6 unknown, and 2 due to birthing complications. It is likely that most of these losses were related to poor health condition associated with the extreme winter conditions of 2013-14. In addition to poor physical condition observed post winter, 30-40 inches of snowmelt and 26 inches of rain fell during the month of June, 2014, resulted in excellent brood habitat for mosquitos. The deep snows protected overwintering larvae from the extreme cold, and the opulent standing water provided excellent brood habitat in the late spring and summer. “Old Timers” agreed, 2014 was the worse mosquito year in memory. Summer elk images on camera grids showed elk under stress! Delayed molt of fur, emaciated body conditions into late July and early August, and raw abrasions on front shoulders and hips from biting insects and rubbing were all observed. Relief from mosquitos didn’t occur until mid to late August. Camera images and staff observations revealed only a handful of surviving calves of which 2 were near Clam Lake and 4 in the Butternut group. Though calves were observed born in the Moose Lake and Winter groups, none survived.
Conditions during the winter and spring of 2015 were much better. We had a relatively mild winter and had an early spring. These conditions normally result in both good elk survivability and good productivity, ultimately leading to prosperous elk. The number of calves will depend immensely on what condition cows were in last September. Time will tell whether we have fair numbers of calves born in 2015. Those that are born should have a greater chance of surviving and cows should be in excellent shape heading into the 2015 September mating season.
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!