The setting sun shot daggers of light through the hardwoods as several friends and I, clad in camouflage and stuck tight to trees in the grove, pressed binoculars to our eyes. As the light of this fall day waned, the only movement was our slowly turning heads as we scanned the low grassland.
Our intent was to see elk, one of the largest members of the deer family, with tawny brown fur, dark mane, and buffy rump. If we were lucky, we'd spot a bull and watch his regal manner of carrying his massive antlers—somehow keeping his head upright.
Soon, the shadows grew longer and the air crisp and refreshing. It would be a good night for an extra log on the fire in our wall tent. Before we went back to camp, though, we listened, wanting badly to hear a bull elk's haunting bugle pierce the inky darkness. The potential for such an encounter, after all, was why we'd come to this place.
As recently as the mid-1800s, the majority of Minnesota was elk country. But hunting and land clearing for settlement resulted in their near-extirpation by the early 1900s. Today, the animals are relegated to comparatively tiny portions of northwestern Minnesota, including Caribou Wildlife Management Area. That's where we camped as we sought to lay eyes on elk from the northern Kittson County herd, which moves between Minnesota and Manitoba.
Hunters and wildlife watchers alike appreciate the majestic beauty of elk. Yet the chances of seeing elk in Minnesota are relatively slim because only three herds, just over 100 animals, reside here.
In order to consider increasing the size and range of the elk population, wildlife managers must also consider the concerns of landowners within the state's elk range. In northwestern Minnesota, some farmers see elk as little more than 900-pound varmints that damage farm fields, destroy fencing, and raid stored forage.
If current conservation efforts bear fruit, it's possible people who want to see elk in Minnesota will have options other than the northwest. That's because the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the University of Minnesota are exploring the possibility of restoring elk to a portion of the elk's historical northeastern range.
"It's a native animal to this part of the state, and back in the day it would have been an important resource to tribal members. So we're trying to restore that," said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band, based in Cloquet. "I think we could blaze a trail, so to speak, here in eastern Minnesota of how to do it. If we can successfully do it here, there are a lot more areas of the state where it could be attempted, in my opinion. There is a lot of forest and a lot of public land in northern Minnesota."
The project, funded by the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative–Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, is studying the potential for elk restoration in portions of Carlton, northern Pine, and southern St. Louis counties. Researchers will figure out where suitable elk habitat exists and how many animals it could sustain, as well as determine public support for the idea.
Though not a project partner, the Department of Natural Resources is supportive. "We've said that we would help out and would provide whatever support we can," said Dave Schad, DNR deputy commissioner. "It's in the original elk range, and we would like to see if there are places there where elk might do well, where conflicts [with landowners] wouldn't exist, and where they might be welcomed by local folks."
Elk History. Elk (Cervus elaphus) once dominated the state's prairies and hardwood forests. Today, the best elk habitat contains a mix of brushland and grassland with forested islands where the animals can go for cover and winter food. Elk eat grasses and forbs for much of the year and switch to woody browse during winter.
As late as 1841, "herds of a thousand or more" could be seen in southern Minnesota, according to a 2016 draft of the DNR's elk management plan. Elk populated about three-quarters of the state, while native woodland caribou called home the coniferous forests of the northeastern quarter. Elk range withdrew to the north as settlement and hunting altered their habitat and shrank their population. By 1890 elk were limited to a slice of the northwestern corner. Minnesota afforded elk complete protection from hunting in 1893, but the animals were nearly gone by the turn of the century.
In 1914 and 1915, with money appropriated by the Legislature, state game officials introduced 70 elk—56 from near Yellowstone National Park and 14 from a private farm in Ramsey County—into Itasca State Park. The herd, though initially reduced by illness, increased in ensuing years. Relocation of 27 elk from Itasca State Park into northwestern Beltrami County in 1935 led to a successfully reproducing population. Those elk eventually moved southwest toward the town of Grygla, where a herd remains.
In the next 10 years, the elk population nearly quadrupled, with elk observed as far south as Bagley and as far west as Thief River Falls. As elk increased, they began damaging crops. Poaching curtailed growth of the elk population, which slowly declined through the 1950s and '60s. In 1976 the DNR drafted a plan in part to address crop depredation and to manage elk habitat on state land.
But damage to agricultural crops such as soybeans and sunflowers remained a major issue, and during the 1984–'85 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill requiring the DNR to remove all elk from Beltrami, Marshall, Pennington, and Roseau counties. While some elk were relocated, a court decision in late 1986 stopped the practice, ruling that relocation could lead to extirpation of elk. The Legislature in 1987 approved a bill to compensate landowners for damage from elk and to create an elk-hunting season for that fall, the first since 1893. DNR wildlife managers hoped hunting would make elk more leery of humans and help reduce depredation.
Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, residents in Kittson and Roseau counties had begun to see elk. "So much of our focus and so much of the public's focus was on that smaller herd in Grygla, but very quietly this herd in Kittson County started to grow," said Schad, then DNR forest wildlife coordinator. "Some of those elk were moving back and forth across the border, so they weren't always in Minnesota." As with the Grygla herd, depredation problems arose in Kittson County as elk numbers increased.
In its 2016 elk management plan, the DNR has set population goals for each of the state's three elk herds. For the Caribou-Vita herd, which has caused less damage, the goal is 150 to 200 elk. For the Grygla herd, the goal is 30 to 38. For the Kittson central herd, the goal is 50 to 60, though the DNR had first proposed 65 to 75 elk. The 2016 Legislature passed a bill saying the DNR can't manage for higher elk numbers until the state Department of Agriculture can show elk damage hasn't increased for two years. The DNR offers a few lottery-based hunting opportunities. Recreational hunting is intended to keep elk populations within the plan's size limits, as well as to keep elk wary of people and away from crops.
The DNR still wants to increase elk numbers, Schad said, because small populations are vulnerable to disease. Recent studies of the herds show genetic variation comparable to that of other elk populations in the nation. But, according to Schad, "We've always been really uncomfortable managing these very, very small populations, where any little thing can really cause them to disappear—whether it's a disease or whatever it might be. We've been very uncomfortable being forced to hunt these very small populations. That's a very rare thing anywhere—to be hunting such a small population of animals."
Popular Elsewhere. Northeastern Minnesota has less agricultural land than the northwestern part of the state does. That's one reason wildlife managers believe elk may be more socially acceptable there. Schrage, of the Fond du Lac Band, has communicated with biologists in other states where elk restorations have succeeded. The best example of success is Kentucky. Elk were eliminated from that state by the mid-1880s, according to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Between 1997 and 2003, more than 1,500 elk from other states were reintroduced to southeastern Kentucky, which is largely forested but also has grassland. Perhaps most important, this landscape has little agricultural land. Today, Kentucky has more than 10,000 elk.
Both Michigan and Wisconsin successfully reintroduced elk. Biologists there told Schrage one key to success is young aspen. In Minnesota's northeastern study area, researchers are working to determine the extent of such prime elk habitat.
Researchers are also looking at the extent of farmland. "An obvious lesson from northwestern Minnesota and elsewhere in elk country is that elk frequently are in conflict with agriculture," Schrage said. "Putting them in a place that has less agriculture—particularly the row crops and large livestock operations—is a good idea. Another advantage of eastern Minnesota is we have a lot of forest and a lot of public land. And the public-land forest we have is managed for timber harvest, so that's creating your elk habitat."
Schrage is quick to point out the plan is still in its infancy. The outcome of the current study will be a feasibility report: Is there public support for elk and sufficient habitat to support them? If the answer to those questions is yes, wildlife managers will need to write an elk management plan, decide how to fund the restoration, and find a source herd. None of it will be simple, Schrage said.
"We aren't going to get away with releasing seven elk the way Michigan did 100 years ago," he said. "We are well stocked with bears and wolves in eastern Minnesota, and we're probably going to need to put, I think, 200 or 300 elk on the ground to start in order for them to produce enough calves and escape the predation that is going to happen. It won't take our bears and wolves very long to figure out elk are good to eat."
The hope of the Fond du Lac Band is to return elk to a level of ecological and cultural significance in northeastern Minnesota again. This would include having enough elk to hold a sustainable hunting season someday. Beyond that, Schrage said, a successful restoration could lead to a greater appreciation of elk in Minnesota.
"Everywhere else around the country, elk are a very desirable, high-profile animal," he said. "Every other state that has elk seems to like their elk and would be happy to have more elk if they could."
Elk Behavior. With support from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, the DNR has undertaken an elk study in the northwest. In February 2016 DNR researchers captured and placed GPS collars on 20 adult cow elk. According to Gino D'Angelo, DNR deer project leader, the study is examining elk movements and characteristics of their habitat.
With a clearer picture of elk behavior in northwestern Minnesota and a better understanding of the habitat they use throughout the year, wildlife managers hope they'll be able to provide prime habitat on public land. If the result is fewer instances of depredation, elk might find greater acceptance by local landowners. More elk could mean more people traveling to the region for wildlife watching and hunting opportunities.
Said Schad: "We'll see if we can turn elk in that part of the state from a liability into something that could bring people there."