Seeing images of an animal with a brown coat, huge antlers and four legs is common this time of year.
Of course, I’m talking about reindeer. However, a different type of animal with the same physical attributes to the Arctic-dwellers are starting to be seen more frequently in the Midwest.
Elk generally thrive in the western U.S., with some herds extending into Nebraska and Kansas. Rocky Mountain elk were reintroduced to the Appalachian region, but have not done well. The animals are sparse in Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee, but have done well in Virginia and West Virginia.
In recent years, elk have created quite the stir in Iowa, Missouri, and yes, Illinois.
Last Saturday, Iowa DNR officers shot and killed a bull elk in Dubuque County to protect local deer and livestock from exposure to chronic wasting disease. This particular animal was first seen on a trail camera in October near Cascade, Iowa, and had been spotted multiple times throughout Dubuque and Jackson County in the past couple months.
No elk had been reported missing from a private property, but Iowa conservation officer Nate Johnson said the animal had a mark in its ear where a tag had been. The animals are protected by Iowa state law, and there is no hunting season for them. If a hunter had shot the elk, he or she would have faced a fine or other potential legal action from the Hawkeye State.
Perhaps the most controversial situation regarding elk in the Midwest in recent memory is one involving a 14-year-old girl in Missouri. On November 11, Abby Wilson shot an elk in Boone County, Mo. – a little more than an hour west of St. Louis, near Columbia – with a .243 rifle. She immediately texted her father, Donald White, who was nearby hunting as well, telling him that she had just shot a massive deer.
When her father arrived on the scene, he realized his daughter hadn’t shot a whitetail. He immediately called the Missouri Department of Conservation, and a wildlife agent was on location within an hour.
What has happened to Wilson has been completely unnecessary.
She has been bullied online by others in the hunting community, with some even suggesting she do jail time. MDC said that Wilson will not get to keep any part of the animal, and is still testing to see whether the elk has CWD. If the meat is clean, it will likely be donated to families in need.
Elk are protected in Missouri as well, with no hunting season available. White and Wilson are still waiting to hear from the MDC on whether Abby will be fined, stripped of her hunting license, or simply given a warning for violating the state’s Wildlife Code.
In my opinion, Abby Wilson should be disciplined via fine. She made an honest mistake by mistaking the identification of the animal, but she broke the law. Missouri can’t set a precedent by simply handing out a slap on the wrist, no matter what age a hunter may be.
White and Wilson have done everything right since the animal was harvested. That being said, Wilson does not deserve to catch flack from hunters who hide behind a computer screen saying she should be locked up.
All the recent hoopla about elk in the Midwest comes at a time when one Illinois hunter is about to celebrate the 1-year anniversary of his surprising harvest.
Carlinville native Frank Link shot an elk Dec. 26, 2016 in downstate Macoupin County. Link didn’t know it was an elk until he shot it with his bow and the animal ran away. Illinois doesn’t have an elk season or protections against elk, so hunters can take an elk home like it’s any old whitetail.
The Dubuque County elk likely came from a heard in the Dakotas or Nebraska, and Wilson’s animal was part of a herd 200 miles away from its harvest in the Ozarks. There had been and continue to be reports of elk wondering around Illinois’ Coffeen Lake and Beaver Dam State Park, but Link’s elk and the others in the area are likely escapees from a ranch.
All of this news makes me wonder: Could elk actually thrive in Illinois?
It’s not likely.
Elk need a 50/50 mix of foraging area (grasslands and shrubby areas) and cover (forests) according to the Illinois Natural History Survey. They need lots of room, and are extremely skittish when it comes to human interaction.
Living in northern Illinois, there might come a day when an unsuspecting hunter sees a brown body, huge antlers and four legs. Northern Wisconsin has an elk population, and as seen in the three stories I highlighted, these animals can come from faraway places.
Knowing lawmakers in our state don’t protect elk, you might just face a choice one day of whether to shoot, or tell a story that starts with, “You’ll never believe what I saw.”