If the elk reintroduction goes according to plan, Minnesota may have the big animals roaming it’s northeast region by 2026.
The Minnesota legislature appropriated $2.3M “to expand Minnesota’s wild elk population and range.” $2M of this money goes to the Fond du Lac Band and $300,000 to the MN DNR as they coordinate efforts to establish a herd west of Duluth. The bill originally called for $4M.
“It’s huge for this project as it’s going to allow us to begin preparations this year as opposed to chasing grant funding from other sources before we’re able to move forward,” said Fond du Lac Wildlife Biologist Mike Schrage. “It also demonstrates clear support from the Legislature and the Governor for having more elk in Minnesota.”
Now that they have the funding, the real elk reintroduction work begins.
“Major efforts between now and then include stepped up CWD surveillance, both around FDL and around the existing elk herds in northwest Minnesota, habitat management/improvements, site prep and construction of holding pens, development of capture and handling protocols and meeting with the public and local governments about elk,” Schrage said.
This round of funding will cover that first relocation, but more funding will be needed for subsequent captures. The elk would be relocated from the northwest Minnesota herds primarily because of CWD restrictions on cervid movements. The days of capturing elk in a different state and moving them are over. This isn’t all bad, however.
Minnesota’s northwest herds, consisting of the Grygla, Kittson Central and Caribou-Vita are to be celebrated. Seeing a potential world-record bull roaming a wheat field in our home state is a captivating sight for big game hunters. But not everyone feels that way. Farmers and ranchers have had to deal with broken fences, crop degradation and a multitude of other factors that complicate the situation. But relocating elk to the northeast doesn’t mean they won’t be gone from the northwest.
One important aspect to this process is that elk must be at DNR management goals before any can be moved and they must remain at or above goals after. But an increased herd in the northeast could potentially have impacts on future management goals in the northwest.
“We are proposing to move up to 30-50 elk a year, but only as the number of elk exceeds the established population goal for each herd,” Schrage said. “The population goal for the Grygla herd is 30-38 elk, but the 2023 estimate of their numbers is only 29 animals. The goal for the Kittson Central herd is 50-60 elk and the 2023 population estimate is 75 elk. There are an estimated 227 elk in the Caribou-Vita herd in 2023, but they spend much of their time across the border in Manitoba.” This could handcuff the efforts when it comes to how many elk can be captured.
Not only does Fond du Lac have to coordinate the process with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but the Red Lake Band also has a claim on these elk so they will have to be consulted as well. That band has taken an increased interest in the elk as their allotment of hunting licenses increased to 30 this year from only 5 during their inaugural hunt in 2022.
While I’ve often hoped to see that herd grow, it just wasn’t going to happen. Now theoretically, if it does, big game managers could potentially slide them over to the northeast, at least at first. Most likely they will be managed separately once the northeast herd is stable and at population goals. Since that area is mostly forested and doesn’t include as much agriculture, the chance of negative interactions with farmers and ranchers is much lower and that could result in a higher number of elk in the state.
The MN DNR will work closely with the tribe during the process. The money appropriated is available until June 30, 2026 so there’s incentive to hit the ground running. But officials warn that it’s going to be a long process. The first step may be the hiring of an elk biologist to lead the way for the Fond du Lac Band. They received a 3-year, $440,000 grant from the Federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative program to pay for the job.
“Much more is needed over the course of several years for this project to become a success,” said Blane Klemek, Regional Wildlife Manager of the Northwest Region for the MN DNR. “Project expenditures will include staff, disease management, facility work, capture and handling, monitoring, land management, and more.”
The future of elk in Minnesota just got interesting. The northeast region allows for more room to let the elk roam, despite it being the former home of our woodland caribou. Those animals died out when settlers arrived. Overhunting and logging, combined with increased predation from wolves and black bears, along with the presence of whitetail deer and brainworm, was too much to overcome. Further, in 1929, 8 elk were translocated from Itasca State Park to the Stony River Ranger District of the Superior National Forest, according to this article from Klemek, but they never established a breeding population and disappeared.
Will the small number of elk survive a landscape with a healthy population of predators long enough to build a stable population? It remains to be seen, but wildlife biologists in the state think so and are committed to making it happen. In 1995, the state of Wisconsin reintroduced 25 elk into the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (CNNF) near Clam Lake. In 1999, the herd had grown to 40 and the efforts were considered a success. Then between 2015 and 2019, 164 additional elk were brought in from Kentucky. Now the elk population is nearing 400 in the state despite Wisconsin having it’s share of black bears and a few wolves too. The long-term population goal is 1,400.
In 2019 a study showed the cause of mortality among young elk. Out of approximately 74 calves born, 38 died. According to the Clam Lake Herd website: “They included a variety of causes including legal hunter harvest (10), illegal harvest (3), predation (9), vehicle collisions (3), and other causes (6). Seven additional losses occurred to animals held in quarantine as part of the Kentucky translocation.”
While the number of hunting licenses for elk in Minnesota has always remained low, there were only 17 tags available this year for resident hunters and 30 tags for the Red Lake Band. A hunting season in the northeast may be a long ways off, but at least now there is a legitimate chance of it happening. In 2018, just 23 years after the first elk reintroduction, Wisconsin held their first managed elk hunt.
Good luck to all the biologists involved and I’ll cross my fingers for future funding sources so that we could potentially see an established herd and another chance for big game hunters to chase elk in Minnesota….maybe as soon as 2049?