Blane Klemek: Elk are well adapted for the wilds of Minnesota
It was within the Cabinet Mountain range of extreme northwestern Montana near the Idaho border where I saw my first wild elk. I was alone, walking a rugged and steep mountain trail some 6,000 feet above sea level, when a movement caught my attention. At first I couldn’t identify what I was looking at in the shadows of dense fir and spruce.
I studied the area while standing completely motionless. Suddenly, a great animal burst from the trees and snow — head riding high, tipped back — with enormous antler beams and long tines gracing each side of his body. In only a few crashing leaps he had crossed the trail before me and was blazing a new trail through even heavier timber as he barreled down a deep gorge.
It was such a brief encounter, no exertion on my part, yet my heart raced as I stood listening to rocks being dislodged, brush cracking, and large hooves thumping in dull thuds across the hard forest floor. Following his appearance and immediate departure, my pulse began to mellow while an overwhelming sense of awe swept over me as it became clear what I had just observed. I had surprised a bull elk — my first wild elk — while hunting solo on a secluded Montana mountain slope I had never been before.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) recognizes Minnesota as an official elk state. Yet despite this esteemed acknowledgment by an organization that has done much to promote elk and preserve elk habitat, few Minnesotans know much about our elk. We do indeed have elk inhabiting woodlands and open landscapes of Minnesota. The animals are not escaped, captive-bred elk, but, rather, are wild and free-roaming elk staking out only partial claim of what was originally a much more expansive range across Minnesota and the Great Plains.
In 1840 elk ranged throughout most of Minnesota. Market hunting for elk was still occurring into the early 1890s. But by 1900 elk only existed in the extreme northwestern corner of the state in a few isolated pockets. By then, beginning in 1893, elk were protected in Minnesota. And it was in 1932 that the last verified sighting of a wild elk in the Northwest Angle occurred. In a very short period of time as Minnesota’s timber was being logged and prairie sod plowed, elk began disappearing as settlers began appearing.
Yet the large cervids (bulls can reach weights of over 800 pounds) weren’t absent from Minnesota for long; maybe they never entirely were. Nonetheless, the absence of elk was concern enough and, in 1913, the Minnesota legislature allocated $5,000 dollars for a plan to bring back elk to the state. As soon as the following two years, 1914-15, 70 elk were introduced into a holding facility in Itasca State Park. Those translocated animals came from Jackson Hole, Wyo., and from a private farm in Ramsey County, Minn.
The Itasca State Park animals were intended to be a source herd for future “transplanting” into other areas of Minnesota. However, only thirteen elk survived that first year in the park. As the years went by, the Itasca herd grew to 25 animals and, in 1929, eight elk were translocated from the herd to the Stony River Ranger District in Superior National Forest. Unfortunately, these elk were never able to establish a breeding population and eventually disappeared from the area.
Another re-introduction, this time in northern Beltrami County at the Red Lake Game Preserve in 1935, brought 27 elk into the area. These animals rapidly established themselves and did extremely well. The herd grew to over 100 strong by the 1940s, but with their success came problems with people. The first documented crop and haystack depredation by wild elk occurred in 1939. In ten years time crop depredation became severe. Soon after, depredation permits were issued to affected farmers by the state to shoot elk and, by 1976, the first elk management plan was drafted.
In 1985, farmers from the Grygla area lobbied, successfully, the legislature to mandate that the DNR relocate all of the elk — hence, the ill-fated elk “roundup” forced upon the DNR by the legislature. Only nine elk were captured and relocated to the Red Lake Indian Reservation when a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club stopped the roundup. Two years later the legislature decided to compensate landowners for crop damage and to limit the herd to only 20 to 30 animals. Periodic hunts would be held to cull the herd as its size increased. The first-ever Minnesota elk hunt was held in 1987.
Today, there are three distinct, but very small elk herds located in northwestern Minnesota: the Grygla herd, at around 20 animals; the Caribou-Vita herd located along the Minnesota-Manitoba border, at about 50 elk; and a third herd in the Lancaster area — the Kittson Central herd — at close to 40 animals.
As mentioned, much of Minnesota was once the home to North America’s second largest species of deer (only moose are larger). Indeed, 100 years ago — a century — this iconic native species of deer was reintroduced to our state, and in recent years, interest and awareness of Minnesota’s elk population has increased.
Recently, for example, tribal leaders of the Fon du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians announced plans to explore reintroducing elk to reservation lands. If such a plan is implemented, it would be the first time in 125 years that wild elk return to a region of the state that once supported the animals.
The small numbers of elk in the state appear to be thriving, but RMEF and many Minnesotans believe the state could support even more. Well adapted to the wilds of Minnesota, particularly to the Aspen Parkland ecoregion where thousands of acres of public land exists in both Minnesota and Canada, majestic and native wild elk continue to roam as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)