Cervus elaphus Linnaeus, 1758
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Cervus elaphus, Cervus canadensis
Basis for Listing
Elk were once distributed over most of Minnesota, but the native races, believed to be Cervus elaphus canadensis in the wooded forests and C. e. manitobensis on the prairie, were nearly extirpated from the state by the early 1900s. Excessive hunting during the 1800s was the primary cause of the elk's decline in the state. In 1913, the Minnesota Legislature appropriated money for the re-establishment of elk. As a result, elk were obtained from the western United States and a private farm in Ramsey County, Minnesota and brought to a holding facility in Itasca State Park in 1914 and 1915 (Minnesota DNR 2008). In 1935, 27 of the elk were released into the wild in northwest Beltrami County. They successfully established a breeding population, and in 1984 elk were listed as a special concern species in Minnesota. Since that time, a second elk herd has become established in Kittson and Roseau counties near the Manitoba border. This herd is believed to be comprised of individuals that have naturally made there way in from Canada, North Dakota, and/or the original reintroduced herd.
The elk is a large deer with reddish to tawny brown pelage, a darker mane, and a buffy rump. Males are larger than females, and have large antlers. Elk are distinguished from white-tailed (Odocoileus virginianus) and mule deer (O. hemionus) by the elk's larger size and darker coloration (Peek 1999). Elk antlers can be distinguished from the antlers of the two smaller deer species by their massive size and by the anterior protrusion of prominent tines over the brow.
Elk are primarily grazers and prefer open brushlands and grasslands for foraging and forested areas for winter and security cover. In Minnesota, native elk were most abundant in the prairies and the hardwood forest transition zone. Today, ideal elk habitat includes a mosaic of brushland and grassland with islands of timber and agricultural land interspersed (Minnesota DNR 2008).
Biology / Life History
The elk's diet is seasonally and geographically variable. Grass and forbs are the preferred food items when available. Elk will also browse on willow (Salix spp.), aspen (Populus spp.), and other woody vegetation as well as consume many agricultural crops. The breeding season for elk occurs in late September and early October (Peek 1999). Males compete for and defend a harem of females; consequently, older dominant males do most of the breeding. Gestation lasts 249-262 days and a single calf is born in late May or early June. Twin births are rare (Hazard 1982; Peek 1999). Yearlings of both sexes are capable of breeding if nutritional levels are adequate. Life expectancy varies according to hunting pressure, but elk can live to 20 years or more (Peek 1999). Wolves (Canis lupus), mountain lions (Puma concolor), coyotes (Canis latrans), and black bears (Ursus americanus) are potential predators of elk (Hazard 1982), but predation by these species in Minnesota is considered to be minimal (Minnesota DNR 2008).
Conservation / Management
While elk are managed as a game species in many states and are not in danger of becoming extinct in North America, there are issues to consider when trying to manage for the long-term survival of small elk populations, such as those found in Minnesota. Population dynamics, genetics, reproductive potential, habitat management, disease exposure and transmission, poaching, and public acceptance are all factors that must be taken into account when managing for elk population viability (Minnesota DNR 2008). Due to the proximity of the Kittson County elk herd to the international border, coordination with representatives of the Manitoba Ministry of Natural Resources will be an important component of management for this herd (Minnesota DNR 2008).
Conservation Efforts in Minnesota
In 1913, the Minnesota legislature appropriated $5,000 to bring a group of elk into an enclosure in Itasca State Park. Fifty-six elk were gathered from areas around Yellowstone National Park and 14 from a farm near St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1935, 27 individuals from the Itasca herd were released on the Haug Ridge area of the Red Lake Game Preserve, which was within the boundary of the Federal Government's Settler Relocation Program in northwest Beltrami County. Despite fluctuating population levels, the herd survived and moved southwest away from the original release site (Minnesota DNR 2008). As the herd increased in number, so did the complaints from farmers claiming elk damage to their crops. In 1976, the DNR drafted the first elk management plan that set management goals for state lands and addressed crop depredation. In 1985 however, a group of farmers successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass a bill requiring the Minnesota DNR to remove all elk from Beltrami, Pennington, Marshall, and Roseau counties. A lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club and others in December 1986 stopped the roundup of elk. Later, during the 1986-87 legislative session, a bill was passed that allowed for an elk hunting season and financial compensation to farmers who experienced crop damage caused by elk (Minnesota DNR 2008). The first elk hunt since 1893 was held in the fall of 1987. Subsequent hunting seasons have been held from 1996-1998 and from 2004-2007. As of January 2008, the herd occupied a 45-square mile area north of Grygla in Marshall and Beltrami counties and was estimated at 55 animals (Minnesota DNR 2008).
Hazard, E. B. 1982. The mammals of Minnesota. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 280 pp.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2008. Minnesota long range management plan for elk: Draft. Division of Fish and Wildlife, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.19 pp.
Peek, J. M. 1999. Elk (Cervus elaphus). Pages 327-329 in D. E. Wilson and S. Ruff, editors. The Smithsonian book of North American mammals. Smithsonian Institution Press in association with the American Society of Mammalogists, Washington.