The History of Elk Reintroduction Efforts in WI

Nov 7, 2018

A mad elk attacks Leatrice Joy in a scene still for the 1949 western "Red Stallion in the Rockies."
Credit WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY, IMAGE ID: 113004, WISCONSINHISTORY.ORG

There is a historic elk hunt taking place this year in Wisconsin.

This week on a Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz tells us about the history of elk reintroduction efforts in Wisconsin.

The year 2018 marks the first time in Wisconsin history that there will be a managed elk hunt in the state.  Although limited to a handful of hunters, the drawing for elk tags is seen as an indicator of successful conservation efforts to reintroduce elk into the Clam Lake region.  However, the current effort to reintroduce elk to the state is not the first, and a previous Northwoods experiment was not nearly so successful.

Wisconsin was once part of the historic range of the eastern elk subspecies.  Eastern elk were once plentiful across the eastern U.S., but over-hunting combined with the loss of their densely-wooded habitat led to the extinction of the subspecies.  The last native elk in Wisconsin was shot in 1866.  The western subspecies of elk survived in the western half of the U.S., but by 1900 it was estimated that of the 10 million elk that once roamed North America only 90,000 were left.

Wanting to prevent complete extinction, in 1913 the Wisconsin Conservation Commission loaded a boxcar in Yellowstone with a small number of elk and had them shipped to Trout Lake near Boulder Junction.  The animals were starving at Yellowstone because much of their range had been fenced off, and Park Rangers were only more than happy to send them on to states engaged in reintroduction efforts.  Unfortunately the elk were so weak that most were unable to survive the Northwoods winter.  Only two females lived, but Charles Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox, was sympathetic to the effort and donated a bull elk to join the two surviving females.  A second attempt brought 32 cows and 8 bulls to Trout Lake in 1917, and they were placed in a 300-acre game preserve along with the three already there.

This small herd struggled to survive, and during the next ten years there were as many deaths as there were births.  By 1928 the herd contained 17 cows, 19 bulls, and 9 calves.  The herd was not growing, and sustaining it while simultaneously protecting it from poachers was becoming increasingly costly.  As the Great Depression overtook the United States, the Conservation Commission decided to end the experiment.  Although still a protected species, in 1931 the herd was set free to survive on its own.  A 1934 report of poachers shooting one of the elk estimated that there were still 28 animals alive at that point.  For the next few years the survivors roamed the Northwoods, but one by one they either died from disease or were shot.  One of the last, a 600 pound bull, was shot south of Sayner in 1943.

No more efforts at reintroduction took place until the current one started in the 1990s.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.