Cervus elaphus Linnaeus, 1758
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Cervus elaphus, Cervus canadensis, Cervus elaphus canadensis
Basis for Listing
Elk (Cervus elaphus) were once distributed over most of Minnesota but were nearly extirpated from the state by the early 1900s. Minnesota’s Prairie Elk were probably the Manitoba subspecies, Cervus elaphus manitobensis, while herds within the hardwood forest were likely Eastern Elk, C. e. canadensis, now extirpated (Fashingbauer 1965). The overharvest of elk and land conversion to agriculture during the 1800s were the primary causes of elk population decline in the state.
In 1893, Minnesota closed the elk season, and by 1913 the Minnesota Legislature appropriated money for the restoration of elk. With this appropriation, Rocky Mountain Elk (C. e. nelsoni), obtained from the western United States; and others, obtained from a private farm in Ramsey County, Minnesota, were brought to a holding facility in Itasca State Park in 1914 and 1915. In 1935, 27 of the elk were released into the wild in northwest Beltrami County. They successfully established a breeding population near Grygla in Marshall County, Minnesota; however, elk numbers in the area have been actively maintained at low levels due to concerns about agricultural depredation and damage.
In 1984, Elk were listed as a special concern species in Minnesota. Since that time, two other sub-groups (Caribou-Vita herd and Kittson-Central herd) became established in Kittson and Roseau counties near the international border with Canada. These groups are currently believed to be comprised of individuals that moved into Minnesota from Manitoba, North Dakota, and/or the original reintroduced herd. Notably, the Caribou-Vita herd spends time in Minnesota and Manitoba; Minnesota DNR and Manitoba Conservation co- manage this international herd. In 2016, Minnesota DNR estimated the Minnesota population to be comprised of approximately 130 animals. Special concern status has been retained due to low population size, limited range, and susceptibility to catastrophic events.
The Elk is a large member of the deer family, with reddish to tawny brown pelage, a darker mane, and a buffy rump. They can weigh up to 400 kg (900 lbs.) and stand 1.5 m (5 ft.) tall at the shoulder. 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 may be considered habitat generalists. Elk are primarily grazers; preferred habitats include open brushlands and grasslands for foraging and woodland or forested areas for winter and security cover. Open areas provide a wide seasonal variety of elk forage that includes green and dried grasses, forbs, and woody plants. Woodlands provide thermal and security cover as well as woody browse when herbaceous forage is less abundant.
Native elk habitat in Minnesota was abundant in the prairie and forest transition zones prior to European settlement (O’Gara and Dundas 2002). Ideal elk habitat in the current Minnesota Elk range is comprised of a mixture of brushland (savanna or wet meadow/carr) and grassland (upland prairie or lowland prairie) with islands of forest (principally fire-dependent forest and mesic hardwood forest) within the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands biome. Aspen parklands provide a mosaic of prairie grasses accented by groves of aspens or scattered bur oaks that are now substantially interspersed with agricultural lands. Relative to other eastern elk populations, Elk in Minnesota inhabit a landscape dominated by agriculture, a component of the landscape that has greatly impacted social acceptance of elk because of crop depredation complaints. The extent to which Minnesota’s Elk use natural habitat, versus agricultural fields or managed food plots within elk range, is unknown. In 2016, the Department of Natural Resources initiated the first research project in Minnesota designed to evaluate seasonal habitat use of elk.
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 and 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. Cows separate from the herd for calving; rejoining the group to form a nursery herd after a few weeks. Mature bulls will spend the summer in bachelor groups.
Life expectancy varies according to hunting pressure; however, Elk can live to 20 years or more (Peek 1999). Gray Wolves (Canis lupus), Mountain Lions (Puma concolor), Coyotes (Canis latrans), and Black Bears (Ursus americanus) are potential predators of Elk (Hazard 1982). Currently, the known mortality factors for Elk in Minnesota are hunting, shooting for depredation control, poaching, predation, and accidents.
Conservation / Management
The Elk population in Minnesota is limited because of social concerns rather than biological concerns (Minnesota Statute 97B.515). Much of Minnesota’s landscape has been converted and developed for human use in a way that conflicts with elk populations. Within the current elk range, concerns about elk depredation of crops and stored forage as well as damage to property such as fencing have resulted in setting population goals to maintain a small population until the level of social support increases.
From a management perspective, the best time of year to survey for elk is during winter, when there is snow on the ground and elk are more easily detected. On an annual basis, Minnesota DNR conducts mid-winter aerial surveys to estimate the species’ population. Early fall, breeding season, is a prime opportunity for public viewing. At this time, bull elk bugle (a whistling sound) to stake out territory and compete for cows.
Conservation Efforts in Minnesota
A variety of intensive management efforts have been undertaken on public lands in the Elk range to improve habitat for the benefit of elk and other native wildlife species. Effectively managing remaining habitats for elk requires managers to enhance habitat on public land to minimize elk-human conflicts. MNDNR implements multiple forms of habitat management to improve forage and cover for elk on state-managed land. Most techniques are aimed at setting back plant succession including prescribed burning, mechanical treatment of brush, accelerated timber harvests, and rotational cattle grazing. The MNDNR also establishes agricultural plantings, or food plots, to encourage elk use of state land rather than adjoining private lands. Food plots have also been established on privately owned fields to reduce elk damage on nearby cropland.
Elk are susceptible to a variety of known wildlife and domestic animal diseases and parasites. Minnesota’s free-ranging elk populations are exposed to both captive cervids and livestock (primarily beef cattle) operations, and the potential movement of diseases between captive and wild animals is an ongoing risk factor. Therefore, monitoring of Minnesota’s wild elk for a wide variety of pathogens is important to maintaining the overall health of the population. All elk taken during Minnesota hunting seasons, as well as other elk carcasses that are obtained, are tested for bovine tuberculosis (TB) and chronic wasting disease (CWD). To date, over 100 wild elk have been tested; results have not detected either disease in the population.
Despite a century of managing Elk in Minnesota, significant gaps in information exist about the local ecology of the population. The first study of elk seasonal movement and habitat use in Minnesota, funded by the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, was initiated in 2016. Improving our understanding about seasonal movement patterns and habitat use of elk will facilitate population monitoring processes, help evaluate current habitat and depredation management actions, and aid in developing science-based options for managing elk and their habitats in future years. Recognizing the influence of stakeholder attitudes on elk management opportunities, the agency also funded research to study elk management preferences of landowners in northwestern Minnesota (2016-2018).
In 2014, MNDNR initiated a public process to revise Minnesota’s Elk Management Plan (MNDNR 2009). Approval and implementation of the 2016-2020 plan is currently on hold (per (b) and (c) Minnesota Statute 97B.516). For the interim, MNDNR will implement management to maintain 2016 population levels of the Kittson County herd (65-75) and increase the population of the Grygla herd (30-38) to meet the 2009 Elk Management Plan goals.
Leslie E. McInenly (MNDNR), 2018
(Note: all content ©MNDNR)
References and Additional Information
Coffin, B., and L. Pfannmuller, editors. 1988. Minnesota's endangered flora and fauna. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 473 pp.
Fashingbauer, B. A. 1951. The elk in Minnesota. Pages 99-132 in J. B. Moyle, editor. Big game in Minnesota. Minnesota Department of Conservation Technical Bulletin No. 9. 231 pp.
Hazard, E. B. 1982. The mammals of Minnesota. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 280 pp.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2005. Field guide to the native plant communities of Minnesota: the prairie parkland and tallgrass aspen parklands provinces. Ecological Land Classification Program, Minnesota County Biological Survey, and Natural Heritage and Nongame Research Program. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul, Minnesota. 362 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.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2009. Strategic management plan for elk. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul. 35 pp.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2016. Strategic management plan for elk: DRAFT. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul. 41 pp.
O'Gara, B. W., and R. G. Dundas. 2002. Distribution: past and present. Pages 67-119 in D. E. Toweill and J. W. Thomas, editors. North American Elk: ecology and management. Second edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 1128 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, D.C. 816 pp.