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Curious North: How Wisconsin's elk population is making a comeback


The Northwoods is home to a lot of wildlife, from deer to wild turkey to black bear. But what about elk? For the WXPR series Curious North, listener Debra of Sayner asked: are elk native to Wisconsin?

Before European settlers made their way to the Midwest, elk roamed Wisconsin much like they do now in the Great Plains.

But as pioneers built homes, they wiped the animal out of the state.

“The last known elk in the state of Wisconsin was killed in 1886, and that would have been west of the Stevens Point area,” says wildlife biologist Josh Spiegel, who manages elk for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “The reason we know this is because it actually had a shipping receipt for a meat market that was attached to that animal.”

Since elk were extirpated from the state in the 1800s, the government has tried several times to reintroduce the species.

The first time, in 1910, failed because of overharvest.

“Part of that issue was that was happening right during the Great Depression,” Spiegel says. “So, you’ve got a large animal on the landscape that could feed a lot of mouths or a few mouths for a long period of time. That resource was very valuable to the people living in the area from a sustainability standpoint.”

However, another attempt decades later in 1995 proved successful. That’s when the state imported 25 elk from Yellowstone to establish a herd near Clam Lake.

Since then, the population has expanded. There are now about 460 elk in Wisconsin. The majority live near Clam Lake.

Spiegel says the herd grows by about 10 to 20 percent each year, which slowly pushes the state closer to its population goal of 1,400 animals for the Clam Lake herd.

Spiegel says it’ll take a while to reach that goal, but that’s okay.

“We’re trying to set it up like a marathon,” he says. “We don’t have to get there ASAP. Elk are still relatively new in the state of Wisconsin, so we’re trying to grow them slowly so that we can adjust to conflicts that occur on the landscape.”

The landscape has changed, Spiegel says, but with careful attention, the once native elk population could be restored in the state of Wisconsin.

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Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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