Some state wildlife experts believe a feasibility report submitted to the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources in August shows that not only is there suitable habitat to restore elk to portions of northeastern Minnesota, there is also plenty of public support for it.
Reintroduction of elk near its native stomping grounds at the southern edge of St. Louis County is still far from a reality but this recent study is an important step in the process.
Historically, one of the biggest hurdles to reintroduction has been elk/human conflicts.
Landowners don’t particularly care for 900-pound animals feasting on crops and stored feed and damaging fences and other property to get at the goodies.
The fact that public acceptance of the idea hovered between 70 and 83-percent in the areas that were surveyed bodes well for the idea that we could one day see the majestic animal roaming free very close to home.
According to the authors of the report – which included officials from the University of Minnesota’s Dept. of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology and Minnesota’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the Fond du Lac Band’s Resource Management Division the study examined the feasibility of restoring elk to northeastern Minnesota.
It provides information for determining where elk restoration will be successful, should it occur, including information about habitat suitability, social acceptance, and human-elk conflict.
The University surveyed 8500 landowners and members of the public across northern Pine, Carlton and St. Louis Counties for their attitudes on elk and spent two years collecting field and GIS mapping data on habitat.
The areas of study included locations around the Cloquet Valley State Forest, the Fond Du Lac Reservation and Nemadji State Forest.
Funding for the effort was provided by Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Early in the state’s history most of Minnesota held elk in decent numbers but by 1893 human expansion and hunting left the population decimated and the state stepped in to offer official protection.
The Arrowhead Region north of the Cloquet and Duluth areas never held elk, instead it was home to caribou.
The following timeline is courtesy of the DNR:
• In 1913, the Minnesota legislature appropriated $5,000 for elk restoration and the following year Itasca State Park became home to 14 elk from a private farm in Ramsay County and 56 from areas near Yellowstone National Park.
• The last recorded sighting of a native Minnesota elk occurred in the Northwest Angle in 1932 and in 1935 27 elk are released 22 miles northeast of Grygla. They successfully establish a breeding population and move southwest.
•In 1976 the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources drafted the first elk management plan that set elk management goals for state lands and in the early 1980’s a second herd migrates into northern Kittson and Roseau counties, presumably from Canada and/or the Grygla population.
• In 1984 Elk were listed as a special concern species in Minnesota, which means although the species is not endangered or threatened, it is extremely uncommon in Minnesota, or has unique or highly specific habitat requirements and deserves careful monitoring of its status.
• In the 1980s the elk population near Grygla increased and the herds move into timbered and brushland areas mixed with agriculture. Elk-landowner conflicts increased as elk find soybeans, sunflowers and other crops to their liking. Damage by elk continued even after state attempts to discourage the elk from using the fields and subsequently elk were removed from that area.
• In 1987, revised elk management plan was incorporated with input from agricultural interests and elk proponents. The plan included an elk hunting season (the first since 1893) to manage the herds and compensate farmers who experience crop damage
There are currently three groups of elk in northwestern Minnesota.
The state manages them at low levels (limited once-in-a-lifetime hunts) by statute as elk have damaged fences and depredated agricultural crops.
That state statute does not apply to northeastern Minnesota, where the likelihood of human-elk conflict is lower.
As part of the report, wildlife officials found landowner support for elk varied between the study areas but overall the response was positive.
Landowner support for elk in northeastern Minnesota was highest in the Cloquet Valley Study Area (82 percent) and lowest in the Fond du Lac Study Area (75 percent).
Support from landowners in the Nemadji Study Area was 81 percent.
According to the report, among local residents, support was highest in southern St. Louis County (83 percent) followed by the Duluth metro area (82 percent), northern Pine County (78 percent) and Carlton County (75 percent).
Overall, a majority of landowners were supportive of restoring elk on their own property (70 percent) and within five miles of their property (76 percent).
Researchers report that their habitat analysis indicates the three study areas could support elk densities similar to what Wisconsin and Michigan are seeing with their elk herds.
The best estimates of biological carrying capacity range from 287 elk in the Fond du Lac Study Area to 551 in the Cloquet Valley.
The estimate for the Nemadji Study Area was 481 elk.