Elk management


A bull elk in northwestern MinnesotaElk, regal racks sprouting skyward and heads held high, once were a common sight in Minnesota.

With the exception of the coniferous forest of the northeast where woodland caribou roamed, elk lived in Minnesota's hardwood forests and on its prairies.

Elk received complete protection from hunting in Minnesota in 1893. But settlement and hunting – both market and subsistence – pushed Minnesota's population toward statewide extinction by the early 1900s.

In 1913, the Legislature appropriated $5,000 to revive Minnesota's elk population. Animals from the western United States and part of a captive herd from Ramsey County were shipped to Itasca State Park and placed in an enclosure.

Efforts to sustain native elk were not successful, and Minnesota's last native animal was seen in the Northwest Angle in 1932.

Relocating 27 elk in 1935 from the captive herd at Itasca State Park to northwest Beltrami County near Grygla eventually produced a breeding population. It wasn't until the early 1980s that elk native to Manitoba crossed the Canadian border to calve and spend summers in Kittson and Roseau counties.


Map showing current and past elk range in MinnesotaThe DNR is exploring Minnesotan’s interest in continuing to maintain and strengthen the resilience of the state’s elk population. Currently, there are population goals in place for three distinct herds in northwestern Minnesota, which consists of two smaller herds and one larger herd that moves back and forth across the Canadian border.

  • Grygla herd: 30-38 elk.
  • Kittson central herd: 50-60 elk.
  • Caribou-Vitae herd: 150-200 elk.

Leaders from several tribal governments, as well as others, have publicly expressed the desire to increase the elk population in Minnesota for cultural, ecological, social and economic reasons and values. Increasing opportunities for activities such as hunting and viewing elk is of interest to a variety of communities, individuals, businesses and interest groups in Minnesota.

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What's ahead

We're having conversations with tribal leaders, local landowners, agricultural producers, legislators, local government officials and state agencies to explore the potential for elk expansion and identify concerns.

We'll conduct an in-depth elk life-history and health research project from 2025-2026. This project will inform elk management by providing essential data on reproductive rates, survival, mortality factors, movements and genetics.

There is collective interest in increasing opportunities for activities such as elk viewing and hunting. Additionally, leaders from several tribal governments, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Izaak Walton League have expressed the desire to increase the elk population in Minnesota for cultural, ecological, social and economic reasons.

We're concerned about continuing to manage elk in small herds, an aspect that current state law requires. Small herd size may be detrimentally impacting the health and behavior of Minnesota's two small herds. Our concerns include:

  • Susceptibility to catastrophic events.
  • Limited genetic variation.
  • Herd structure and behavioral changes due to heavy hunting pressure necessary to keep populations at or below established goals.

To support Minnesota’s long-term vision to enhance the size and range of its elk population, DNR and stakeholders need to demonstrate that there is support for expanding the elk herd.

Current state law only allows an elk population increase in northwestern Minnesota when agricultural damage payments have not increased for at least two years. Removing this statutory restriction is an important and necessary next step.

The DNR and Minnesota Department of Agriculture recognize that elk damage crops. The two agencies are developing updates to programs that assist agricultural producers in responding to and recovering from elk damage. These programs include the MDA crop damage compensation program and DNR technical and materials assistance for fencing and other measures to limit elk damage.

The Red Lake Nation asserted off-reservation 1863 treaty rights and hunted elk in 2022 and 2023. DNR understands that the tribe plans to conduct annual hunts, and the DNR is in conversation with Red Lake Nation to determine how to support more elk hunting.

With support and direction from the Legislature, DNR is a partner with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa on the Band’s proposal to restore elk to the Fond du Lac Reservation and surrounding area in northeast Minnesota. In 2023, the Legislature provided $2.3 million to the Fond du Lac Band and DNR to “… expand Minnesota’s wild elk population and range. Consideration must be given to moving elk from existing herds in northwest Minnesota to the area of the Fond du Lac State Forest and the Fond du Lac Reservation …

The DNR is working on elk management broadly and supporting the Fond du Lac Band’s restoration proposal in a variety of ways:

  • Providing staff support: DNR hired an elk biologist, funded by the 2023 legislative appropriation.
  • Assessing chronic wasting disease risk: DNR has been assessing elk health since 2004 and no CWD has been detected in Minnesota’s wild elk. Additionally, during the 2023 firearms deer season, deer harvested by hunters in the five deer permit areas in and around the northwest Minnesota elk range were tested for CWD. Thankfully, no CWD was detected.
  • Exploring expansion: DNR is initiating discussions with tribal leaders, local landowners, agricultural producers, legislators, and local government officials to explore the possibility of expanding the northwest elk population to meet the increased interest in elk.



See an elk, report it

Elk are being spotted outside their traditional range. If you see an elk, report it and help DNR wildlife managers better understand elk movement and distribution.

Know the difference

Individual elk are beginning to appear in a wider geographic area outside of far northwestern Minnesota. Make sure you know the difference between deer and elk in the field.


Natural History


Appearance & behavior

Elk are members of the deer family. They can weigh up to 900 pounds and stand 5 feet tall at the shoulder. Their coats are deep reddish brown in the summer, but their sides and back become light tan while their head, neck and legs become dark brown in the winter.

The breeding season (called the rut) begins in late September. Bulls compete for cows and gather them into harems.

Primarily at dusk and dawn, bulls grunt and make a low whistling sound called a bugle. This bugle is used to challenge other bulls, maintain their harems and stake out territory.

After the rut, elk gather into winter herds and will stay together until June when the cows go off to calve before rejoining the herd several weeks later. Mature bulls spend the summer in bachelor groups.


Historical elk range

Elk range in 1840
Elk range in 1860
Elk range in 1880
Elk range in 1890
Elk range in 1900
  • 1893: Minnesota first protects elk.
  • 1913: Minnesota Legislature appropriates $5,000 for elk reintroduction.
  • 1914-15: Itasca State Park receives 14 elk from a private farm in Ramsey County and 56 from areas near Yellowstone National Park.
  • 1932: The last recorded sighting of native Minnesota elk occurs in the Northwest Angle.
  • 1935: 27 elk are released 22 miles northeast of Grygla. They successfully establish a breeding population and move southwest.
  • 1976: DNR drafts the first elk management plan that set elk management goals for state lands.
  • Early 1980s: A second herd migrates into northern Kittson and Roseau counties, presumably from Canada and/or the Grygla population.
  • 1984: Elk are 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.
  • Mid- to late- 1980s: As the elk population near Grygla increases, the herds move into timbered and brushland areas mixed with agriculture. Elk-landowner conflicts increase as elk find soybeans, sunflowers and other crops to their liking. Damage by elk continues even after state attempts to discourage the elk from using the fields and subsequently removing the elk from this area.
  • 1987: A revised elk management plan incorporates input from agricultural interests and elk proponents. The plan includes an elk hunting season (the first since 1893) to manage the herds and compensate farmers who experience crop damage.
  • Today: Support for an increase in Minnesota's elk population appears to be growing among Minnesota citizens. However, local agricultural producers have limited tolerance for elk damage to crops, fences and stored feed. Successful partnerships among producers, landowners, elk enthusiasts and the DNR will determine Minnesota's elk population.


Elk are primarily grazers and prefer open brushlands and grasslands for foraging and forested areas for winter and security cover. Native elk habitat in Minnesota was abundant in the prairie and forest transition zones prior to European settlement and elk are a keystone species in the prairie environment.

A bull elk in northwestern Minnesota during winter

Ideal elk habitat in the current Minnesota elk range is comprised of a mixture of brushland and grassland with islands of forest within the Tallgrass Aspen Parkland biome. The mixed habitats in the elk range are also interspersed with significant agricultural lands, which has greatly impacted social acceptance of elk due to crop damage complaints.

The tallgrass aspen parklands are a mosaic of prairie grasses accented by groves of aspens or scattered bur oaks.

Trees are a rarity in the prairie grassland. Most of the historic prairie is now in agricultural lands, although patches of remnant prairie remain.

These mosaics of woodland cover and large open areas provide excellent elk habitat.

Woodlands provide escape cover from human disturbance and predators, and wooded corridors provide travel lanes among seasonal habitats.

Open prairie grassland areas provide a wide seasonal variety of elk forage that includes green and dried grasses, forbs and woody plants.


Elk food preferences vary with the time of year. Among natural foods, grasses and forbs comprise the bulk of the diet during the snow-free period. Woody browse is consumed during late fall and winter when herbaceous forage is less abundant or covered by deep snow.

Elk also use agricultural crops, particularly those adjacent to wild land where they can feed without venturing far from cover. Sunflowers, soybeans and oats are favored crops. Corn, wheat and barley also are eaten. Alfalfa is used during spring green-up and late in the fall. Baled alfalfa and grain are highly preferred winter foods where available, especially during winters with deep snow.




Visit parklands and prairie grasslands

The elk range in northwestern Minnesota boasts tens of thousands of acres of public lands managed by the DNR, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others. These lands stretch from the tallgrass aspen parklands west to the prairie grasslands.

Bull elk in the tallgrass aspen parklands

The most popular period to view elk is September through October during the elk breeding season or rut. Elk can frequently be spotted in openings, especially at dusk and dawn. They also can be tracked by listening for the bull mating call or bugle. Grassy meadows, forest edges near openings and food plots established for elk are key areas for viewing.

Hundreds of miles of hunter walking trails in area wildlife management areas provide opportunities to view and photograph hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife.

Kittson County

There are two herds that provide viewing opportunities in Kittson County.

The Kittson-Central herd: Animals roam about 10 miles north and east of Lancaster and can occasionally be seen from paved or gravel county roads or, better yet, more isolated township roads. Skull Lake WMA is east and north of Lancaster. It provides more than 7,000 acres of elk habitat and can provide good viewing opportunities from the vehicle or on foot, especially in the fall.

The Caribou-Vita herd: Animals often can be found on the eastern portions of Caribou WMA, which is about 15 miles north and east of Lancaster. Elk are year-round residents on this 13,700-acre unit. Elk can be viewed from the vehicle or by hiking into the WMA.

Marshall County

The Grygla elk herd: Animals may be spotted along the west side of County Road 54 four miles north of Grygla where food plot fields were planted specifically for the elk. They can also be found along Minnesota Highway 89 about six miles west and north of Grygla.

Go on a hunt

An elk harvested in Minnesota

Hunting elk in Minnesota is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and Minnesota's herds have drawn nationwide attention for their trophy-sized bulls.

Hunter harvest has been the principal tool used to manage elk population growth. Hunting also helps maintain more natural, wary behavior in elk, which encourages the animals to avoid croplands and other human-use areas.

Generally, bull or either-sex seasons have been conducted in September. Antlerless hunts have been scheduled later in the fall and into winter.

Hunters can explore hundreds of miles of hunter walking trails on a variety of state WMA's. These areas provide excellent opportunities to hunt ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse.




Elk movements and habitat use

Wildlife technicians prepare to release a collared female elk in northwestern Minnesota

Tracking elk movements and determining habitat use in spring, summer, fall and winter will provide information to better manage Minnesota's elk population.

Wildlife researchers from DNR and Minnesota State University-Mankato began tracking elk movements in February 2016 by quickly capturing 20 female elk in northwestern Minnesota and fitting each with a GPS collar. The collars record an elk's location every 4-6 hours and send those coordinates to a satellite, which emails the information to researchers on the ground.

During key biological periods, such as when calves are born, locations of elk will be taken every hour.

The collars also have a VHF module to actively track animals when necessary. A smaller temperature logging module will transmit the air temperature with GPS location data, allowing researchers to track what type of habitat elk seek at certain temperatures.

Once researchers know where elk are, aerial photographs will be taken to show the ground cover elk prefer at different times of the year and different biological periods.

Researchers will collect data through June 2018, providing a two-year look at elk movements and habitat use that will allow DNR to:

  • Identify habitats most commonly used by elk and potentially make those areas more suitable for them;
  • Speed elk population surveys and improve their effectiveness; and
  • Better determine elk population goals to minimize landowner and farmer conflicts yet still provide recreational opportunities for elk viewing and hunting.


Project funding comes from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources and approved by the Minnesota Legislature. DNR and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation also provided funding.

Kiwi Air wildlife technician Trent Brown readies an elk collar The helicopter capture crew prepares for takeoff


Status & Statistics






Elk damage

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