It was a perfect fall day near the Canadian border on Caribou Wildlife Management Area. While posting boundary in the golden aspen parklands landscape, suddenly there they were – a cow and calf elk. This encounter was my first with elk and a magnificent moment to recall. These stately, native creatures were once common on our prairies and in our hardwood forest transition zone of Minnesota. In American Indian culture, Shawnee referred to elk as “wapiti” which means “white rump”, and Plains tribes associated them with masculinity, endurance, and bravery. A great deal of interest presently centers on this regal mammal due to northwest Minnesota’s actively managed and hunted elk population, new research underway, and an updated elk management plan in the works. Plus an upcoming feasibility study will assess restoring elk to a portion of east-central Minnesota.
Elk are a member of the deer family, weighing up to 900 pounds and standing 5 feet tall at the shoulder. Their coats are deep reddish brown in summer, but their sides and back become light tan while their head, neck and legs become dark brown in the winter. Males are larger than females and have impressive antlers. Relative to their Minnesota cousins, elk are bigger, darker and have more massive antlers than white-tailed deer, but smaller and lighter colored than moose which have paddle-like antlers. A third cousin, the woodland caribou, once roamed the coniferous forest of northeast Minnesota, but is now extirpated.
Back from Extirpation
Settlement and excessive hunting pushed elk to near extinction in our state by the early 1900s. In 1893, they received complete protection from hunting, but our last native elk was seen in the Northwest Angle in 1932. In 1935, 27 elk, originating from areas around Yellowstone National Park and a private farm in Ramsey County, Minnesota, were released into the wild in northwest Beltrami County. The herd reproduced and moved southwest away from the original release site. It’s now known as the Grygla herd of Marshall County. In the early 1980s, a second herd of elk naturally migrated into northern Kittson and Roseau counties, presumably from Canada, North Dakota and/or the original reintroduced herd. This herd occurs in both Manitoba and Minnesota. It’s known as the Caribou-Vita herd. A third herd, Kittson-Central, has also become recognized in Kittson County.
Recipe for Roast
Elk are primarily grazers, preferring open brushlands and grasslands for foraging and forested areas for winter and security cover. The aspen parklands biome of northwest Minnesota is ideal habitat, with its mosaic of woodland cover and large open areas. Grass and forbs are preferred during snow-free periods. Woody browse, like willow and aspen, is eaten during late fall and winter. Elk also use agricultural crops, such as sunflowers, soybeans, oats, corn, wheat, barley, and alfalfa, especially when adjacent to cover. A variety of methods are used to enhance habitats for elk, including prescribed burning, shearing and mowing of brush, food plots, and timber harvest. The elk’s behavior and diet make for excellent slow cooked roasts.
The breeding season or rut for elk in Minnesota peaks in mid to late September. Bulls compete for cows, gathering them into harems. They grunt and make a low whistling sound or ‘bugle”, primarily at dusk and dawn, to challenge other bulls, maintain their harems and stake out territory. It’s enough to give any listener goose bumps. After the rut, elk gather into winter herds, staying together until late May or early June when cows leave to give birth to a single calve. Twins are rare. Mature bulls spend the summer in bachelor groups. Cows and calves rejoin the herd several weeks after birth. Elk can live to 20 years or more. Their natural predators here include wolves, coyotes and black bear.
Support for Minnesota’s elk population appears to be increasing, yet elk can cause crop and fence damage. Thus DNR strives to find a balance between landowner/farmer tolerance and the public’s desire for increased recreational opportunity and more animals in the free-ranging, wild population. In 1976, DNR drafted the first elk management plan. During the 1986-87 legislative session, a bill was passed that allowed for financial compensation to farmers who experience crop damage from elk and the first elk hunting season since 1893.
Elk population goals were established in the 2009 elk management plan. A 2016-2020 plan update and re-evaluation of population goals was underway when the 2016 legislature required that it be put on hold and elk numbers managed at current population estimates. The Caribou-Vita herd is estimated at 120-150 elk, with a goal of 150-200. The Kittson-Central herd had 52 elk when surveyed last winter. It will be managed at that level for at least two years under current legislature direction. The Grygla herd had just 21 elk last winter. Plans are to recover this herd to the 2009 goal level of 30-38 elk and maintain that level as directed by the Legislature.
Minnesota’s elk hunt is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and primary tool for managing populations at desired goals. It also helps maintains natural, wary behavior in elk, encouraging them to avoid croplands and human-use areas. Generally, bull or either-sex seasons are conducted in September, followed by antlerless hunts later in the fall and into winter. This fall, seven bull-only permits total are available for the herds in Kittson County for the September 10-18 season. The Grgyla herd will not see a harvest this year.
Wildlife researchers from DNR and Minnesota State University-Mankato began tracking elk last February by capturing and collaring 20 female elk in northwestern Minnesota. Researchers will follow their movements and determine seasonal habitat use such as what habitats cows select for calving. The study will continue through June 2018. Data will be used to improve habitat management, aerial survey methods and population goal setting, and reduce depredation by elk. Funding is provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF), DNR and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF).
Elk could someday roam parts of southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine counties of Minnesota again. That’s the hope of the Fond du Lac (FDL) Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and RMEF. To evaluate whether elk can be restored on FDL’s traditional territory in this portion of historic elk range, a feasibility study is being led by University of Minnesota with support from FDL and RMEF. It will assess public attitudes toward elk and determine where and how much potential elk habitat is available in the region. Primary funding for this study has been provided by the ENRTF. It will begin in 2017 and be completed by June 2019. If results are encouraging, the FDL Band hopes to move forward with next steps in the process to restore elk to the area. If ultimately successful, elk would freely roam portions of east-central Minnesota for the first time in over a century.
The future of Minnesota’s elk will depend upon successful partnerships between producers, landowners, elk enthusiasts, other agencies and DNR. For additional information, see the DNR website elk page.