A Tale of Two Herds
New generations of elk are staking their claim to the northwestern corner of our state.
By Gustave Axelson
"I'll bet 95 percent of the folks in Minnesota don’t know these animals are here."
Donovan Pietruszewski sits mesmerized by the sight in his binoculars. When we set out at dawn to roam the back roads of the Caribou Wildlife Management Area in Kittson County, he warned me our chances of spotting elk in mid-July were slim to none.
Now we’re perched in the back of his green Department of Natural Resources pickup truck at the edge of a washed-out oats field a mile south of Canada. A few hundred yards away stands a mass of dun-white rumps, acorn-shaded broadsides, and chocolate-brown necks stretched to the ground to feed. We count 14 elk cows and two bulls. Then the wind changes direction. A few of the cows catch our scent and send out a series of throaty grunts. Eight calves respond, rising from their hiding spots among the oats to stand at attention.
While it may be too soon to declare a successful recovery, wild elk are expanding their presence in Minnesota. The DNR’s Karlstad wildlife office estimates 40 elk roam Kittson County at any given time. They began migrating from Manitoba for summer feeding in the early 1980s. These days many stay for most of the year.
Sixty miles to the south near Grygla, another 25 elk live on as the survivors of Minnesota’s ill-fated attempts to introduce Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni). They are free-ranging, yet their numbers are regulated by a state mandate, born of farmer discontent over crop depredation.
From these humble herds, the DNR, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and others hope to help elk re-establish themselves—first, in the minds of Minnesotans, and eventually, in our woods and grasslands.
BY THE NEXT DAWN, I’m bumping along more gravel roads in another green DNR pickup. This one is driven by Paul Telander, supervisor of Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area near Grygla. He issues the same warning when we meet: "Don’t expect to see any elk this morning, because they haven’t been around lately." Before long, we’re admiring two massive bulls—six points on each antler—lying in a wheat field. They wear their racks regally; heads held high, velvet antlers sprouting skyward.
"That’s as beautiful a picture as you’ll see," Telander says quietly. For 18 years he’s managed the Grygla elk amid heated controversy, yet his reverence for them hasn’t dimmed. "That’s nature’s beauty right there. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing it."
The last native Minnesota elk was reportedly seen in the Northwest Angle in 1932. A century earlier, elk were numerous throughout the state, except in the caribou lands of the northeast. Eastern elk (C. elaphus canadensis) now extinct—lived in the hardwood forests. Manitoban elk (C. elaphus manitobensis) inhabited the prairies.
Elk received complete protection from hunting in Minnesota in 1893, but settlement pushed the population toward extirpation by the early 1900s. In 1913 the Legislature appropriated $5,000 for reintroduction efforts to revive Minnesota’s elk population. Thus began a series of elk management follies that accomplished little more than alienating farmers.
During the winters of 1914 and 1915, 70 Rocky Mountain elk destined for Itasca State Park were gathered from wild herds in Wyoming and near Yellowstone National Park, and from a private herd on the James J. Hill farm in North Oaks (descendants from elk captured in Wyoming). The elk were placed in an enclosure within Itasca for use as a source herd for future transplants. Only 13 survived the first year.
The Itasca herd grew to 25 animals by 1925. In 1929, eight were released on the Superior National Forest, but they failed to establish a viable herd.
Finally in 1935, an introduction of 27 elk in the Red Lake Game Preserve showed promise. This herd grew to more than 100 animals in the 1940s. But as they flourished, they expanded their range and discovered the tasty alfalfa, wheat, and sunflower fields in the Grygla area. Farmer resentment over crop depredation led to poaching, and the herd’s numbers began to fall.
In 1985 farmers successfully lobbied for state legislation that required the DNR to remove all elk from the Grygla area.
Though the DNR recommended waiting until winter to bait the elk into corrals, the Legislature’s Sept. 1 deadline left no time for such passive measures. Pre-winter baiting yielded little success, so the elk were chased by helicopters and shot with tranquilizer darts. When a woozy bull drowned, the DNR was allowed to wait until water freeze-up to resume its efforts.
Nine elk were captured and moved to the Red Lake Indian Reservation that winter. Two died during relocation, and two more were poached the following spring, prompting a Sierra Club lawsuit in December 1986 that stopped the roundup.
In 1987 the Legislature voted to compensate farmers for crop damage and limit the elk herd to between 20 and 30 animals, through public hunting seasons if necessary.
Hunts were held in 1987, 1996, 1997, and 1998. Through 1998, Minnesota paid Grygla-area farmers $53,904 in elk crop damage claims. Only one claim has been submitted since that last hunt.
Meanwhile, after 1987, the Sierra Club abandoned further efforts to influence Minnesota elk management.
"We strongly disapproved of the elk management policy that was instituted in Grygla," says Sierra Club North Star Chapter board member Judy Bellairs, who was a member of the chapter’s elk task force in 1987. "Given the small population and the public sentiment toward elk in that area, we didn’t think it was very likely they would survive. That’s not to say we blame the DNR. It wasn’t their fault. They were handed a bad management mandate by the Legislature."
"THERE GO A FEW MORE. And look, they’ve got young. . . . That’s what we like to see."
A half-mile from where we saw the bulls, Telander points out three cows and two calves dashing into an aspen stand. The calves look like hybrid offspring from a deer and a horse. They sport white dots like a fawn, but their size and long neck resemble a colt.
According to the DNR, these and other calves of the Grygla herd haven’t suffered ill effects from strict population control. DNR genetic tests on Grygla elk revealed no problems related to inbreeding and suggested that wandering bulls from North Dakota, Kittson County, and Ontario are keeping the gene pool diverse.
Heading north on Highway 54, we spot another cow on our left. She’s standing among freshly rolled hay bales in a field. Telander nods toward the Wapiti WMA directly across the road to the east.
"Wapiti is a Native American word for elk," he says. "I’m not sure whether Wapiti WMA was named because elk used to live there, or because elk are intended to live there, but that’s where they’re supposed to be.
"We’re trying to lure elk into Wapiti by clearing timber to open grazing areas and planting some food plots," he says. "The current management plan allows us to manage for a higher herd population of 100 to 150 elk in that area. They are moving farther east than they did 15 years ago.
"But it’s hard to compete with fields and fields of crops. And they’ll probably never completely leave Marshall County, since that’s where they’ve established calving grounds. They have a bond to that land, so they’ll likely come back year after year."
In the meantime, it appears Grygla’s farm community isn’t willing to tolerate a growing elk population west of Wapiti WMA.
"Most farmers don’t like them," says farmer Ronnie Engelstad. "I think they’re pretty to look at, so long as they don’t do damage to me. I’ve been seeing more of them lately, though. They’re smart enough to make themselves scarce when they’re being shot at, so it’s probably time we had another hunt."
PIETRUSZEWSKI HASN’T had to deal with grumbling farmers in Kittson County. Born and raised in Karlstad, he knows most of the landowners whose properties abut the 95,000 acres of wildlife areas he manages. Since returning home in 2001 at the age of 32 to run the DNR’s northwestern outpost, he hasn’t received one formal complaint about elk crop depredation.
"It’s not that our elk up here aren’t eating crops," Pietruszewski explains. "It’s that our farmers are very generous to elk.
"Every fall, it seems our elk are pushed into Canada by deer hunting season. They seem to get spooked by the gunshots and people walking the fields. But come December, when the elk start coming back, a few farmers set out alfalfa bales for them. Landowners here seem to like having elk around. It’s a different scene than Grygla."
Enthusiastic support among the locals, a lack of elk population governance by state mandate, and a multitude of public lands for grazing make Kittson County ideal for wild elk. And other than poaching, which has been confirmed in the shooting of two bulls in the past six years, the Kittson County elk are not hunted.
In managing this herd, Pietruszewski does face a natural foe, however—vegetational succession. Kittson County is located in the heart of the tallgrass aspen parkland, which was historically maintained by wildfires. Today aspen choke out the native grasslands, which constitute prime natural feeding grounds for elk. On a limited budget that shrinks each legislative session, Pietruszewski can burn only a few thousand acres each year to hold back the aspen.
Fortunately, he has help. In 1993 The Nature Conservancy began buying land in Kittson County to preserve the prairie. This year, TNC helped Pietruszewski burn more than 10,000 acres.
"We’re hoping to partner with Minnesota DNR and Nature Conservancy Canada to conduct larger prescribed burns across all our lands, so we can create a contiguous stretch of healthy grasslands that would allow elk to thrive, as well as other wildlife," says Ron Nargang, TNC state director.
Pietruszewski’s elk management duties end at the Canadian border. On the other side, his counterpart in Manitoba has something to say about the Kittson County elk.
"That herd in Minnesota now is a remnant of the Red River Valley herds," says Doug Schindler, regional wildlife manager for Manitoba Conservation’s office in Lac du Bonnet. "You’d have to do genetic testing to be sure, but those aren’t transplants, so I think they’re Manitoba elk. They’re native to your land."
RALPH CINFIO WAS ecstatic when he became the youngest hire in the short history of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in 1996. He was a 25-year-old whose passion—kindled by hunting elk as a boy in Nevada—beat out the experience of wildlife management veterans. Then he found out his first assignment was a regional director position in Minnesota.
"To be honest, I had to go to the atlas to see exactly where it was," says Cinfio, who holds the same regional director position today.
Today Minnesota is on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s map with 11 chapters and more than 3,800 members. In the past 15 years, Minnesota foundation members have raised more than $6 million for elk management.
And now that Minnesota is recognized as an "official elk state" by the foundation—a designation that foundation volunteers won for the state last year—an average of 30 percent of net state fund-raising dollars can be used for elk project funding locally.
In March the foundation convened a project advisory committee that included state and federal wildlife officials. The committee approved more than $24,000 in matching funds for DNR elk management projects including prescribed burns, food plots, and aerial census flights in Minnesota.
Cinfio hopes to see many more proposals in the future, including some ideas for stimulating elk-related tourism.
"We’ll take a look at anything that builds excitement for Minnesota’s wild elk," he says.
Elk are considered to be an economic boon in other states. In southeastern Kentucky, studies estimate elk-related tourism and hunting will add more than $35 million annually to the local economy within the next five years. Pennsylvania’s first elk hunt generated more than $500,000 in application and permit fees. And in Wisconsin’s Chequamegon National Forest, a herd of 25 elk introduced in 1995 has grown to more than 100 and is becoming a tourist draw.
"The most common question I hear from my guests these days is, ‘Where can we see elk?’" says Rich Curtis, co-owner of Clam Lake Lodge in Wisconsin.
Minnesota’s elk economy has been slow to develop. The four Grygla elk hunts have garnered $65,000 for the DNR, but regular elk seasons will have to wait until one of the herds grows larger. Currently, no organized elk-viewing activities exist, though there are plans to begin promoting elk in northwestern Explore Minnesota tourism publications.
"I think the development of the Pine-to-Prairie Birding Trail opened up a lot of people’s eyes to the power of tourism," says David Bergman of the Minnesota Office of Tourism’s Thief River Falls office. "People around here started seeing cars with license plates from Arizona and Indiana, and they heard the drivers say they were here to see birds. Now imagine the possibilities if we’re promoting northwest Minnesota as the only place in the state you can see or hunt elk."
WITHIN THE NEXT couple of years, the DNR hopes to issue an updated version of its elk management plan. Unlike the 1998 draft, this plan will address the opportunity presented by Minnesota’s newest elk herd.
"Kittson County certainly seems to be the most likely spot for an expanding elk herd," says Jim Breyen, DNR regional wildlife manager in Bemidji. "We’ll meet with the residents in that area and interested conservation organizations to determine a population target. There seems to be support for elk in Kittson County, so we’ll see how big a herd everyone will be comfortable with, and what we can do to make that happen."
The expanded plan will also address a host of new problems and issues.
Chronic wasting disease will be a concern, though infection rates are typically much lower in elk than they are in deer. Minnesota’s first case of CWD emerged in an elk game farm in Aitkin County in August. The DNR says it is extremely concerned about the risk of disease passing between wild and game farm elk.
There has already been one such encounter, when a wild bull crashed an elk farm fence in an attempt to mate with a game farm cow elk. The proliferation of elk game farms—there are now more than 200 in Minnesota—will make it increasingly difficult to keep wild and game farm elk separate.
Another concern is a cervid affliction that is already firmly established in Marshall and Kittson counties. Meningeal brainworm—a parasite carried by white-tailed deer that is a cause of moose mortality in northwestern Minnesota—has been detected in Grygla elk feces since the 1960s, though there has been no evidence that it has affected the elk. With deer population densities pushing ever higher in Minnesota, there may be a risk of the parasite infecting and killing elk.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge will be funding. At current budget levels, Telander and Pietruszewski say they are able to spend only about 5 percent of their time managing elk. It’s not as though we’re ignoring our elk herds, but we just don’t have the funding to do more right now," says Breyen, who oversees DNR wildlife management in Marshall and Kittson counties. "The Division of Wildlife has been instructed by the Department of Finance to identify a budget cut of 12.5 percent for fiscal years 2004 and 2005. It’s difficult for us to be cutting existing programs, and then identify new funding from those reduced dollars for a new wildlife program."
According to Telander, involving the public in elk management may be the key to new funding.
"We need to get people reading this new version of the elk management plan and asking their state legislators to allocate funds for Minnesota’s elk herds," he says.
"A lot of folks don’t think twice about natural resources because they figure the DNR’s taking care of it. Well, when it comes to elk, we’re doing the best we can. But we need help."
If you’d like to try your luck at spotting Minnesota’s elk, call the Thief Lake WMA office, 218-222-3747, or the Karlstad area wildlife office, 218-436-2427, to ask for maps and find out where elk have been reported recently. To learn more about the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Minnesota, call 320-203-0932 or explore their website.
Gustave Axelson is a free-lance writer from Minneapolis. In three days of driving in Kittson and Marshall counties, he saw more than 40 elk.