One step forward for project to look at elk restoration

Cloquet, Minn. — A push to look into the feasibility of reintroducing elk to the landscape in three northeastern Minnesota counties has moved to the next stage. The University of Minnesota last week submitted an application to the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources to fund research.

The funding request, for $325,500, would look into both the social aspects of adding elk to the landscape in that part of the state and whether the habitat is suitable for the animals in northern Pine, Carlton, and southern St. Louis counties.

“We still have a ways to go,” said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which is the main partner in the project. The band has put up $30,000 of matching dollars for the project. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has also committed $15,000.

Though the University of Minnesota would carry out the research, Schrage has carried the water for the project, making presentations to interested groups and gaining support to at least look into the idea. He’s gotten such support – and letters of recommendation to the commission for funding – from all three counties, the Minnesota DNR, plus the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Minnesota Conservation

Federation, Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, the United Northern Sportsmen conservation club, and the Minnesota chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Craig Engwall, executive director of the MDHA, said the presentation was well-received by his board, and that there are no concerns about deer and elk sharing the landscape, noting the main concern voiced is whether reintroduction would be socially acceptable.

Leslie McInenly, DNR big-game program leader, said concerns over crop damage have been the major limiting factor in expanding the herd elsewhere in the state.

“We are supportive of the feasibility study and looking at what the opportunities are for establishing elk in eastern Minnesota,” she said. “We want to expand elk in our long-term plan for elk, but social support has been the limiting factor.”

In northwest Minnesota, factions of the agricultural community have been at odds with proponents of the elk herd there over crop damage and depredation issues. The thought is there may be an opportunity to expand the large grazing members of the deer family into northeast Minnesota, where there are more forests than farms.

“There are still farms there,” McInenly said. “But any time you have an opportunity to bring a native species back onto the landscape, it’s a good thing to look into.”

Regardless of whether elk can be restored in northeast Minnesota, the research that would come out of the project could help inform future elk-management plans, McInenly said, noting the DNR is planning on putting the current plan, which is for 2016-2020, before the public later this year.

For now, Schrage said, the proposal rests in the hands of the LCCMR.

The commission will next review, evaluate, and rank all of the proposals it received this summer. Those it selects to move on to the next phase would make more detailed presentations in October, and from there, select projects will be recommended for funding. The Legislature would still have to include funding for the project. 

“If we get the funding to complete these studies and if the answer is yes on both, then we can move forward,” Schrage said. 

Rich Staffon, the president of the Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, said the general public is pretty supportive of the idea. 

“The only negative I’ve heard is that they wish it wouldn’t take so long,” he said. “But (Schrage) is moving slow and being careful, and it takes time to do that.”

Staffon, a retired DNR wildlife biologist from Cloquet, said there are Native American records of elk having been in this area, though it’s hard to reconstruct what the landscape looked like exactly, as it may have already changed by the time European settlers arrived on the landscape due to the way Native Americans may have managed the land.

“When the loggers got here, my impression is that there were heavy conifers from about Hinckley north,” Staffon said, noting that it would have been more of a deciduous forest to the south, along the St. Croix River valley, which is where elk may have flourished. “We were probably on the boundary of where moose and caribou dominated.”

Schrage said even if it is determined that elk would be a good fit, it’s going to take time to write a management plan, raise money, and find a source of elk. Schrage believes several hundred animals would be needed to ensure the species’ viability in an area with many predators, such as wolves and bears.

“If everything goes well, this would still be a 10-year process before we could have wild elk in northeastern Minnesota,” he said.

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