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Clam Lake, WI Elk Herd Info
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.
March 2018 Update
The following is a late-winter 2018 population estimate and projected spring population size for the elk that occupy the Clam Lake Elk Range in Ashland, Bayfield, Price, Sawyer, and Taylor County.
- The Clam Lake Elk Herd consists of several spatially-distinct sub-herds.
- The 2018 population estimate is derived using a combination of methods.
o First, there are the number of elk that are known because they have radio-collars, which were either placed on elk during winter 2018 elk trapping or in prior years.
o Secondly, there are direct observations of collared and uncollared elk by staff. Some of these direct observations are incidental, but there is also a concerted effort by staff to count all elk in the smaller sub-herds.
o Thirdly, there are 2 Snapshot Wisconsin camera grids, which encompass the area inhabited by the two largest elk sub-herds. Office of Applied Science staff have used data from these cameras and statistical population-estimation methods to generate elk population estimates for these sub-herds. These methods corroborate population estimates generated from the tallies described above.
▪ Bulls are more difficult to count than cows/calves, so in addition to tallying marked and directly-observed bulls, we derived a minimum bull count for the largest sub-herd (the Clam Lake sub-herd) using a DNR trail-camera grid. Using photos taken during fall, DNR staff tallied the minimum number of bulls, based largely on antler characteristics and individual markings (collars and/or ear tags).
- Due to their more sedentary nature and tendency to live in stable social groups, cows and calves are easier to account for; a very high proportion of cows and calves are marked.
- Past intensive data collection on the Clam Lake Elk Herd has yielded very good information of overwinter mortality rates and birth rates from young, prime-age, and very old cows. Combining this information with the current population estimate and cow age-structure, we are able to project the postcalving population size.
- Tallying numbers of cows, calves, and bulls across all elk sub-groups in the Clam Lake Elk Herd, there was likely 180-187, as of mid-March 2018.
- Assuming typical mortality between mid-March and spring/summer calving, and typical birth rates, we expect 44-45 calves will be born during spring/summer 2018.
- Given the mid-March population estimate, little or no late-winter and spring mortality, and the expected addition of calves this spring, the elk population could peak ~ 224 – 232 elk. Of course, some elk will die before all elk calves are born, so the true peak number may be somewhat fewer.
Clam Lake Elk Herd Update (December 2016):
Population Status: We had an earlier than normal spring this year with green-up 5 May 2016 in the southern part of the elk range and 7 May 2016 in the northern portion. As mentioned in the report regarding the first half of the year, we had a good crop of calves. With the mild winter, early spring and good growing season we expect good calf survival. As with 2015 we had a long Fall, and sightings of elk confirm that adults and young are in very good shape going into winter. We have about 50 elk with working radio collars, having 2 young bulls lose their “break away” collars in November. We have not had a radio collared elk killed by wolves during the second half of the year in the CLEH.
Elk Recruitment and Mortality: Collection of data cards and replacement of batteries on the Clam Lake “Snapshot” camera grid occurred in October and early November. We should have good images during the fall rut and into winter that will give us insights into the make-up of the herd and elk survivorship. Numerous elk sightings have been reported by citizens and resource managers, providing insights into distribution and herd health and numbers. Many of those sightings confirm good survivorship of calves so far. Two calves were killed as a result of vehicle collisions on Highway 77 near Clam Lake this fall, one male and one female.
Elk Research on the Clam Lake Herd: The collaborative effort by WI DNR and the US-Forest Service and the general public to maintain 155 trail cameras on a grid overlaying the elk activity area around Clam Lake is on-going. This year many of the agency maintained cameras were taken over by private citizens. 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 many aspects of our management, including elk harvest in the future. In July, the Wisconsin Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) Project Advisory Committee approved for funding a number of projects including a research project for $92,000 to maintain and monitor GPS tracking collars on elk and wolves on both the Black River and Clam Lake elk herds to further investigate population dynamics and predator/prey interactions. This will not only include all the Kentucky elk to be released (up to 75 transported, plus any calves born while in quarantine), but also wolves throughout the two elk ranges and 20 native born elk in the Clam Lake area.
Elk Habitat Improvements: In addition to last year’s creation of 60 acres of forest openings, we planted another 21 acres and mowed 57 acres on the Flambeau River State Forest (FRSF). Telemetry and observations have verified elk use on these managed acres. During 2017, we will continue to spend about $16,000 of combined Turkey Stamp, National Wild Turkey Federation and RMEF funding. We also have a new mowing and gated trail/opening rejuvenation project which we received over $15,500 from RMEF to complete. In addition to the Kentucky elk release, CLEH project staff have their hands full with elk and turkey habitat projects (mutually beneficial).
In 2015, timber sales on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (CNNF) were set up by DNR and County foresters for the U.S. Forest Service under the cooperative “Good Neighbor Authority” (GNA). Furthermore, the ongoing National Environmental Policy Act review for management on the “Black/Torch Project” should be completed soon, thereby setting the stage for some 6,300 acres of aspen clear cuts to be turned over to the GNA for establishment. This is great news, and trees are again being cut on the CNNF that will be of great value to the elk herd. As a recently published article on elk nutritional ecology clearly establishes, those clear cuts create abundant summer and autumn elk foods!
More Elk Coming: As 2016 come to a close, the new elk quarantine pen and adjoining handling facility on the Flambeau River State Forest (FRSF) is ready to receive elk. CLEH staff will be in Kentucky from January 2nd to approximately February 5th, 2017 to help trap elk. These elk will then be quarantined and health tested in Kentucky for approximately 45 days before being transported to Wisconsin. They will then finish out the remainder of the 120 required quarantine period in the FRSF pen and undergoing additional health tested. Once cleared of all required health tests, they will be fitted with GPS tracking collars and released to the abundant, high quality habitat in that area. The elk restoration team is “charging the reins” to get up to 50 elk, many of which will be pregnant cows, to bring back to the Clam Lake Elk Range! From here on we are hoping for “exponential growth”!
Partnership Efforts: Members of the team going to Kentucky include a diverse group of DNR including a forester from the Flambeau River State Forest, wildlife biologists, wildlife health specialists, and a conservation warden. In addition, outside partners will also participate including a forestry technician from the US Forest Service and a veterinarian from the Department of Agriculture. As already mentioned, the DNR and USFS are cooperating under the Good Neighbor Authority, and this effort should continue to pay big elk habitat dividends into the future. About 40 RMEF volunteers helped place fabric on the FRSF quarantine pen walls during the RMEF Bugle Days work event. Forest Service staff also helped put finishing touches on the quarantine pens. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission are also involved in the project, and will be contributing to the purchase of hay and other necessary feed for the elk as well as helping out during health testing.
Information and Education: Josh Spiegel and Laine Stowell participated with other resource managers, loggers and timber mills to give 5th and 6th graders from dozens of schools across Northwestern Wisconsin a “Log a Load for Kids” event in October. Josh and Laine’s site had an elk management focus with bull skulls, an elk hide, photos, radio collars, cow calls and bugles and a presentation to each group. They spread the elk message to over 1,200 kids in those 2 days. Close to 100 participants heard an elk update from elk project staff at the evening September 10th RMEF Bugle Days event.
Future Focus: Beginning in early January, a team of elk trappers from Wisconsin and Kentucky will capture up to 50 Kentucky elk to bring back to the FRSF! After being release next summer, each one wearing a new GPS tracking collar, elk project staff will begin another busy field season creating new, and maintaining established, elk forage habitat as well as monitoring daily activities of the elk herd. There are also plans by the DNR Bureau of Science Services to establish another large “Snapshot Wisconsin” camera grid over-laying the occupied elk area in and around the FRSF release site in the southern portion of the Clam Lake Elk Range.
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!