Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Can We Restore Elk to Southern Illinois?

Illinois is at the center of the historical range of the eastern race of North American elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis). This subspecies is now believed to be extinct, having been extirpated in Illinois by 1850. Existing wild populations of elk occupying the former range of eastern elk (principally in Michigan and Pennsylvania) are descendants of Rocky Mountain elk (C. e. nelsoni), translocated from the area near Yellowstone National Park.

In the fall of 1995, members of Illinois' General Assembly directed the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to study the feasibility of reestablishing a wild population of elk in Illinois. Elk reintroductions have been tried many times, but success has been varied. Most failed attempts have been due to poor-quality habitat and land use/land owner conflicts. Successful reintroductions require large amounts of high-quality habitat and low human density. Three of 8 attempts succeeded in the plains states (Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas) while only 2 of 10 attempts succeeded in the East (Michigan and Pennsylvania). The research by the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) was intended to provide resource managers in the DNR with a preliminary assessment of the habitat available to support a reintroduced population of elk in southern Illinois and identify promising release sites relative to habitat, land ownership, agriculture, and road densities.

Elk bull (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) at Yellowstone National Park.

The Illinois Geographic Information System (GIS), which is housed at INHS, was used to identify elk habitat in southern Illinois. GIS is a sophisticated set of computer programs designed to manipulate, process, and analyze map data. The map data we used came from aerial photography and remote sensing, most of which was generated for other Survey projects. Using the programming expertise of INHS scientists Tony McKinney and Mark Joselyn, we first "told" GIS what elk habitat should look like and then "asked" it where similar habitat existed in southern Illinois.

Published studies of elk habitat use indicate that a 50-50 mix of foraging areas (grasslands and shrubby areas) and cover (forests) is optimal. Other factors must be considered when selecting potential release sites. For example, elk are very sensitive to human disturbance, so road densities must be low and human activity must be minimal. Elk also need lots of room, so isolated areas that have a suitable mix of forage and cover with low human disturbance may still be poor habitat because they are too small.

Given these criteria, our analysis indicated that, not surprisingly, the best prospects for reintroducing elk are in the regions surrounding the Shawnee National Forest. Comparisons of areas in the Shawnee suggested that the eastern side (Pope County) may be a more suitable area for elk due to lower road density, less agriculture, less urban area, and more diverse forest cover-types.

Potential elk habitat in southern Illinois.

Our analysis also indicated two important challenges to elk restoration. First, while the Shawnee is among the least developed areas in Illinois, it still has higher road densities than most western elk habitat; thus, human disturbance may be a problem. Second, in spite of having large areas of natural or seminatural vegetation, many small farms, nurseries, and orchards are located in and around the Shawnee. Crops, nursery stock, and fruit trees would be vulnerable to elk depredation should elk be reintroduced.

Herd of elk cows and calves at Yellowstone National Park.

DNR is continuing to study the feasibility of reintroducing elk and is currently assessing potential economic and social impacts. Will visitors to southern Illinois be able to see elk in the near future? Stay tuned...

Timothy R. Van Deelen, Center for Wildlife Ecology

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Last Modified 8/16/96

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