Tribe hopes to bring elk back to northeastern Minnesota

Elk walk through the snow near Grygla, Minn.
Elk walk through the snow near Grygla, Minn. The Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe is seeking $300,000 from the Legislature for a two-pronged study on the feasibility of restoring elk.
Marshall Deters | Minnesota DNR via AP

Majestic wild elk once roamed most of Minnesota before hunters killed them off. Now the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe hopes to bring them back to the tribe's ancestral territory in northeastern Minnesota.

The Ojibwe name for elk is "omashkoozoog," or "prairie moose." Tribal officials and other supporters say restoring them could open up new opportunities for nature tourism, since they're looking at an area that's only a couple hours' drive north of the Twin Cities. Success also could allow for elk hunting eventually. That's important to a tribe with a heritage of subsistence hunting, but tribal officials envision even non-Indians eventually getting the chance to hunt the elk, too.

"It's restoring not just a part of the band's wildlife heritage but everybody's wildlife heritage," said Mike Schrage, a wildlife biologist with the tribe. "We used to have thousands of elk in the state and we're down to 130."

Minnesota's few wild elk are limited to three herds in the far northwestern corner of the state. Their numbers have been deliberately kept low to reduce conflicts with farmers, who regularly complain about the animals eating their crops and knocking down their fences.

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The University of Minnesota is asking the Legislature for $300,000 to study the feasibility of restoring elk to a territory that includes southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine counties. The tribe and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation would contribute a combined $45,000.

James Forester, an elk researcher at the university who would lead the study, said researchers would search out the best habitat and determine how many animals it could sustain. They'll also survey people to gauge public support. That should help them identify specific areas that could support a fairly large herd without too many negative impacts on human activities, he said.

Schrage said the area could be better elk territory than northwestern Minnesota because it doesn't have much agriculture. Much of it is public land and the timber industry leaves a lot of young aspen stands, providing good food supplies. The few farms are mostly small livestock and hay operations.

The Department of Natural Resources supports the research, said John Williams, the DNR's northwest regional wildlife manager. Williams thinks it would be good to evaluate the entire state eventually. He said he believes Minnesota has the potential to support a substantial elk population, just not where they currently live or in other heavily agricultural areas.

Elk once roamed most of the U.S. and the success of other states in restoring them is encouraging, Schrage said. Wisconsin re-established a herd near Clam Lake about 20 years ago and just started a second near Black River Falls. Michigan now has 600 to 700 elk after bringing them back in 1918. Kentucky, which started restoration in 1997, now has around 10,000. Elk have thrived in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina since their 2001 reintroduction. Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Virginia and Ontario also have brought them back.

"Most eastern states that have restored elk populations have found a real economic boost to local communities through elk tourism," Schrage said. For example, he said, the Clam Lake area estimates it gets a $200,000 annual bump from elk-watchers.

Conservation groups are enthusiastic. As people come to understand wildlife, they become passionate about ensuring it's there for their children and grandchildren, said Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League.

The study would begin this summer, but Schrage it could take around 10 years and another $3 million to $5 million before any elk are released on the landscape. They'd have to develop a management plan and find a source herd, he said. But the crucial factor will be public attitudes.

"What's going to drive the success of elk restoration is whether people want them and are willing to put up with elk," Schrage said.