Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Elk in Wisconsin
Brochure (4 panel). PUB WM-669-2018
Wisconsin DNR
Original Date
  • Bookwood Historical Collection, Star Lake

History of Elk in Wisconsin

Elk were once common throughout Wisconsin prior to European settlement, but the last native elk were reportedly killed in 1886 in northwestern Wisconsin. An effort was made to reintroduce elk in 1914. Elk from Yellowstone National Park were released into a Vilas County enclosure and subsequently released into the wild in 1932. Survival was poor due to unregulated hunting and the last four elk were reportedly killed in 1954.

In 1990, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was directed by state legislators to explore the feasibility of restoring elk, caribou and/or moose, all of which were once native in Wisconsin. An assessment of each species suggested that elk would be the most successful.

A lack of local support initially prevented a reintroduction from occurring. But public support grew between 1992-1994. Funding from both state and non-governmental agencies was secured to allow an experimental release in the Clam Lake area of Ashland County.

In 1994, the DNR approved a four-year study under the direction of Dr. Ray Anderson of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. If the experimental study found that elk were detrimental to the environment or humans, the would be removed and the project would end. Financial support came primarily from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

During the winter of 1994-95, 25 elk were captured from Michigan's lower peninsula. After extensive health testing and a three-month quarantine, the elk were brought to Wisconsin in May. They spent two weeks in an acclimation pen and on May 17, 1995 were released into the Chequamegon area of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. After an absence of 110 years, wild elk once again roamed the Northwoods of Wisconsin.

Current Elk Management

The Clam Lake elk range consists of approximately 1,620 square miles of mixed conifer, upland hardwoods and cedar swamps. A significant portion lies within the Great Divide Ranger District of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, as well as in the Flambeau River State Forest. The elk range contains several hundred acres of openings maintained specifically for wildlife as well as an abundance of industrial forest lands, where young forests provide a perfect mix of habitat for elk. Federal, state, and county forest, and private lands are mixed throughout the elk range. The long-term population goal for the Clam Lake herd in 1,400 elk.

Elk reintroduction efforts were revived in 2012 when the DNR began working with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to transport up to 150 elk to Wisconsin over the period of up to 5 years. From this effort, a new elk herd was established in 2015 and 2016 with the released of 73 elk into the Black River State Forest of Jackson County, while remaining animals were released in the Flambeau River State Forest to augment the population of the original Clam Lake herd. The long-term population goal for the Black River State Forest herd in approximately 400 elk.