A bowhunter in Macoupin County killed a bull elk the day after Christmas, sending a wave of confusion across the state and creating a number of questions, the most popular being, “Wait, we have elk in Illinois?”
DNR is still investigating the case, but admits the agency has received reports in recent months of elk wondering around Coffeen Lake and Beaver Dam State Park. Best bets are that the elk taken by Frank Link, of Carlinville, escaped from a farm or some kind of domestic elk ranch. There are a couple in the region.
Link told local media representatives that he didn’t know it was an elk until after he had shot it and watched it run away. Regardless, he is fully within the law. Illinois has no elk season, but it does not have any protections for elk, either. If a deer hunter shoots an elk, he or she can legally take it home as if it were a deer.
The incident immediately brought to mind a time 20 years ago when Illinois considered re-introducing elk in southern Illinois. DNR even studied the feasibility of an elk population, assessing potential economic and social impacts.
In the fall of 1995, members of Illinois’ General Assembly directed DNR to take a good look at the potential of elk. Subsequent research by the Illinois Natural History Survey 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,” DNR noted in a 1996 report.
According to INHS, elk habitat requires a 50-50 mix of foraging areas (grasslands and shrubby areas) and cover (forests). What also is known is that 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,” DNR noted two decades ago. “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.”
Of course, Illinois did not go through with the elk re-introduction. But neighbors Kentucky and Missouri have, adding elk to suitable lands in recent years. However, none of those lands are near the Illinois border, which basically rules out the possibility that the Macoupin County elk wandered in from the west or the east.