Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Some of the elk being held in an acclimation pen, waiting to be declared disease-free before being released into the wild in Wisconsin.

Elk Returning to Ho-Chunk Lands a Century After Being Driven Out

Douglas Thompson

Elk once roamed Wisconsin, a native species. But they were driven out in the 1800s by overhunting and the habitat loss associated with the conversion of native prairie to farmland.

But they are starting to come back, thanks to an initiative initiative to import up to 150 wild elk from Kentucky over the next three to five years, said Karen Sexton, wildlife biologist for the Ho-Chunk Nation. So far, 26 elk have been transported from Kentucky to Wisconsin to be held in an acclimation pen before being released into east central Wisconsin’s Black River State Forest sometime early this summer. This marks the beginning of an effort to expand an existing elk herd in northern Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and reestablish a new herd farther south in Jackson County, in Wisconsin’s prairie-forest border region, and in the heart of the Ho-Chunk Nation’s lands.

“The disappearance of this species from Wisconsin was a big loss for the Ho-Chunk Nation,” said Robert Mann, director of the Ho-Chunk Nation Department of Heritage Preservation. “We have an Elk Clan, one of the twelve clans, each clan has a certain traditional responsibilities within the Nation.”

According to Mann, Hawk Clan, elk were historically very important to the Ho-Chunk Nation as a source of sustenance and life.

“Beyond the value of the restoration itself, this is a powerful opportunity to share the history of our people and to demonstrate the value we place on stewarding the lands provided to us by the creator,” said Mann, noting that a private ceremony had conducted prior to the elks’ arrival at the Black River State Forest acclimation pen. “This was done not only to thank the Creator and pray for the survival of these animals, but also to instill our values in the younger generations.”

The project has been under way for quite some time, Mann said.

“Restoring elk to our aboriginal lands has been years in the making,” Mann told Indian Country Today Media Network. In 1995, 25 Michigan elk were released in the Clam Lake region of far northern Wisconsin, an area deemed low in the potential for conflict with agriculture. This herd, which mostly roams on National Forest land in 1842 Treaty ceded territory, now numbers about 160 animals.

At the time of the 1995 release, plans had been made to establish another herd of elk in the area of Black River State Forest. These plans hit a roadblock in 2002, however, when chronic wasting disease showed up in Wisconsin’s deer population. The detection of this devastating illness caused state officials to halt importation of elk and other members of the deer family to help curb its spread, effectively ending plans to establish a herd farther to the south.

Circumstances changed in 2013, however. According to Sexton, who sits on the Wisconsin Natural Resources department’s Elk Advisory Committee, Governor Scott Walker included language in the 2013–15 state budget that relaxed restrictions for elk importation if the animals are sourced from a wild population and if disease precautions are taken.

“This reopened the door for restoration of elk in the Black River State Forest,” said Sexton.

According to Kevin Wallenfang, big game ecologist for the natural resources department, the long-term goal now is to establish a herd of 1,400 elk in the Clam Lake area and a herd of up to 400 animals in the Black River State Forest area. While all of the animals remaining in the acclimation pen in Black River Falls State Forest will be released on-site, the intent is also to release animals that will intermingle with the Clam Lake herd in future years. Kentucky will provide all of the animals to establish both of these herds. According to Will Bowling, elk program biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of the main reasons for using Kentucky elk is that wasting disease has never been detected in that state’s herd. Though the illness has never been found in the Kentucky herd, Bowling stressed that all of the animals relocated from that state will undergo quarantine and testing for it and other diseases.


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