Minnesota's smallest elk herd got smaller this winter. A poacher shot and killed two bull elk in a heavy willow stand near Grygla, Minn., a township northeast of Thief River Falls.
The Grygla herd had only 20 elk last year, so the loss of even two animals decimates the local population.
The bodies of a young spike bull and a 4-year-old raghorn were spotted from the air in late February during the yearly elk survey. The Department of Natural Resources sent investigators in on foot, according to John Williams, the northwest region wildlife manager.
They were able to determine the bulls were shot, then abandoned but couldn't nail down exactly when it happened.
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"The carcasses were frozen," Williams said. "It would be hard to say when they perished."
In 2005, Williams said, there were more than 50 elk. Hunters thinned the herd to the management target of 30 by 2012. Then the population continued to drop — even after hunting was stopped.
In the fall of 2013, an elk died of what Williams called "suspicious causes."
By 2014, only 20 elk were living near Grygla. Now, there are 18. It's a worryingly small number, but Williams is hopeful the herd will recover.
"When I first came to this region in 1991," he said, "that population was around 17 or 18 elk. We came back from that."
The DNR is looking for any information regarding the poached elk. Reach the tip line at (218) 242-1383.