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Fond du Lac Band mulls elk restoration

Bull elk catch the morning sun at Bull Run Elk Inc. in 2002. File Photo

A plan is in the works to restore wild, free-roaming elk to parts of east-central and Northeastern Minnesota for the first time since they were extirpated from the region 125 years ago.

Tribal leaders of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa have authorized the band’s natural resources staff to study the concept of reintroducing “omashkoozoog” in southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine counties.

“We went to the tribal council with the idea of restoring elk to his part of the state and they said yes … enthusiastically yes,” said Mike Schrage, Fond du Lac wildlife manager. “So now we need to take it beyond an interesting idea to see if it makes sense.”

The elk, relocated from another state or Canada, would be released in the southern reaches of the 1854 treaty area and northern reaches of the 1837 treaty between the Lake Superior Chippewa and the federal government, which give tribal members hunting, fishing and gathering rights across much of the region.

Karen Diver, Fond du Lac tribal chairwoman, highlighted the idea in her annual “state of the band’’ report last week.

Restoring elk to the landscape is “consistent with the band’s feeling of stewardship for natural resources, and contributing to the healing of our land and its inhabitants,” Diver said. “A healthy planet is closely related to our health as a people.”

Schrage noted that elk were abundant and native to the area until they were shot out by the late 1800s as European emigrants settled the area. Before that, the Ojibwe had a history with elk as much as with deer and moose and caribou, he noted.

It likely will take several years, lots of money and both social and political “buy-in” before the first elk are released in the area, Schrage noted. The region has extensive state and county forestland.

“The first thing we need to do is a habitat study to see if the proper habitat is there for them to thrive,” Schrage said. Then we need to get the government land agencies involved, the residents, landowners, farmers, deer hunters. … We’re going to need buy-in for a lot of different communities to make this happen.”

Elk are fairly adaptable, experts say, and are more likely to thrive in a warming Northland climate than moose, which are rapidly declining. Schrage said no elk would be released anywhere near the current moose population in northern St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties.

Elk also appear to co-exist well with whitetail deer, the dominant species now on the Northland forest landscape. Several other eastern states have reintroduced wild elk herds, including Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky, Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee. None have reported any negative impact on deer.

Illinois, West Virginia and New York currently are considering reintroducing elk.

Michigan restarted its elk population with just seven animals in 1918, a herd that since has grown to more than 900, for the most part well accepted by both landowners and sportsmen in the state, including deer hunters. According to elk experts, elk and deer have different diets than elk during the spring, summer and fall. While the diet overlaps during the winter, even then elk and deer generally forage in different areas.

Wisconsin reintroduction successful

Just 100 miles east of where the Minnesota elk would be restored, Wisconsin introduced 25 elk from Michigan in May 1995, the state’s first elk in more than 100 years.

Then-Gov. Tommy Thompson championed the project and the elk herd grew slowly but surely. There now are about 166 elk in and around the original release area near the town of Clam Lake, in southern Ashland County and the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Laine Stowell, Wisconsin’s lead elk biologist, said some of the Wisconsin elk are being translocated into new areas and that the state’s official elk zone has been expanded from 1,100 to 1,600 square miles. While a few of the elk have roamed far and wide, most have been homebodies.

“We’re trying to help them expand into some additional suitable habitat,” Stowell said.

Wisconsin also is considering a second, distinct elk release in Jackson County in central Wisconsin. Several groups, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have pledged money to pay for the relocation but, so far, the DNR has been unable to find a certified disease-free population of elk that another state or province is willing to give up.

Stowell said Minnesota elk supporters probably will face a similar delay in finding elk certified free of chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis.

“You have to be persistent. Jackson County people have been waiting for nearly 20 years to get elk,” Stowell said. “If state’s have a thriving population they generally want to keep them for their hunters.”

Wisconsin will allow a limited elk hunting season only when their herd grows to more than 200, Stowell noted.

Stowell also said that recent studies show elk restoration efforts should start with a minim of 75 animals, both to increase genetic diversity and to withstand predation by wolves and bear. Of the Wisconsin elk that have died and been found by elk biologists over the past 20 years, 42 percent have been killed by wolves; 16 percent from vehicle collisions and 12 percent from bear attacks, mostly on calves 6 weeks old and younger.

“Wolves will have an impact, there’s no doubt about that,” Stowell said.

But elk also have learned to avoid wolves. Radio telemetry studies show elk prefer large aspen clear cuts, both for a food source and as a place to escape wolves.

“Their mortality is reduced in those big clear cuts,” Stowell said.

Northwestern Minnesota elk

Leslie McInenly, big game program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said her agency has discussed the elk reintroduction with Fond du Lac biologists. But the DNR currently has no money to take part in any new elk program, she noted, and the agency has a full plate trying to deal with the state’s moose crisis.

“The idea of having elk, a native species, back in their habitat in that part of Minnesota is interesting,” McInenly said. “The idea we like. … It’s the challenge we face with land ownership and depredation they might do (to agriculture land). But we’re open to discussions.”

The DNR might seem reluctant after dealing with a controversial elk herd in northwestern Minnesota for decades, mostly because of the damage the big animals cause to cropland. The state pays farmers for damage caused by the elk.

Minnesota has about 150 wild elk in three distinct herds confined to the extreme northwestern corner of the state, remnants of a transplanted population started in 1914. Because the elk roam in areas with developed row crop farms, their expansion has been thwarted by complaints of crop damage and political pressure to keep their numbers low. The state has held several, limited hunting season on those elk since 1987, although won’t hold a season this year.

But the northwestern Minnesota elk gradually are gaining broader acceptance, McInenly said, and there are even proposals to allow the herd expand away from farming areas. A public hearing is set for later this week on the northwestern elk.

McInenly said it will be critical for Fond du Lac to carefully determine if a suitable habitat exists for an elk herd to be successful — namely large tracts of public forest, with the kind of trees and plants elk prefer to eat, so the elk don’t cause problems.

“It will be interesting to see what they come up with,” she said. “Even if the habitat is there, it’s not so much a question if the elk would thrive again but whether people would accept them.”