Elk plan faces limitations following passage of ag bill

St. Paul — An agriculture policy bill that included legislation that would likely slam the brakes on the Minnesota DNR’s proposal to expand one of the three elk herds in northwestern Minnesota was passed, via conference committee, near the end of the session last Sunday night.

The bill included a provision that would give the commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture some oversight of the state’s management of wild elk.

News of the passage of the bill, which as of Outdoor News press time still required the signature of Gov. Mark Dayton to be enacted, rankled advocates of expanding the Lancaster-area herd, while is pleased some agriculture interests in that area who have long derided elk regarding associated crop damage.

The Minnesota DNR had been in the process of updating its elk-management plan, but put that process on hold upon finding out the legislation was in the works, said Bob Meier, an assistant DNR commissioner. The plan was expected to be finalized as early as mid-March.

“We are very concerned about what (the legislation) does,” Meier said, noting that the DNR had gone to lengths to work with area farmers to come up with solutions to their concerns. 

“But to come up with this language in the late hours is very problematic,” Meier said. “They took game and fish law and put it into an agricultural policy bill.”

Meier said Dayton can’t line-item veto that portion of the bill. He remained hopeful that it wouldn’t become law, mentioning the possibility that it could be addressed if there is a special session.

The language says the DNR commissioner can’t increase the size of the elk herd “unless the commissioner of agriculture verifies that crop and fence damages paid … have not increased for at least two years.”

It also calls for a joint public meeting with the commissioners of both departments to be held in any area where there are plans to increase the herd. That meeting must be held at least 60 days prior to implementing a plan, and the commissioners must present evidence that crop and fence damages haven’t increased in the prior two years, according to the legislation.

A phone message left with the bill’s House author Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, was not returned, nor was one left with the bill’s Senate author, LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer.

John Williams, the DNR’s regional wildlife manager for northwestern Minnesota, declined to comment on the bill.

Patrick McMullen, the Minnesota-based regional director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, declined to comment publicly on the legislation.

Fabian held a meeting in early March that was attended by farmers opposed to elk, said Roland Larter, a retired doctor in the Caribou area who has led the push for an expanded Lancaster herd.

“It was an unruly mob there,” Larter said. “Fabian got the wrong picture of the whole thing. There is a vociferous minority that you couldn’t please no matter what. It’s just a frustrating situation to deal with.”

Thom Peterson, government relations director for the Minnesota Farmers Union, which supported Fabian’s bill, said the bill matched up with concerns he’s heard from farmers in both Kittson and Marshall counties. His group held the March meeting in Hallock.

“We are committed to working with the DNR,” Petersen said. “We feel the DNR needs to continue to work with us. We don’t want to eliminate elk, but we need to continue to work together.”

Petersen said none of its members in the elk range are in favor of increasing the elk herd.

“The farmers aren’t comfortable with the DNR managing the herd they have now,” he said. “Proving your loss (in depredation complaints) can be difficult.”

Petersen said it is appropriate for the ag commissioner to have a role in elk management because of the damage the animals can do to farm crops. 

Larter said he didn’t agree with Petersen’s points, saying that those opposing elk represent a minority of farmers.

Farmers and ranchers made up about a third of the DNR’s citizen working group that helped shape the department’s elk management plan revision, last meeting last fall, said Larter, who was a member of the group, as well. 

The group agreed to expand the Lancaster herd from 50 to 70 elk through the end of the decade. It also included different measures to prevent property damage caused by elk.

“The ranchers had ample representation,” Larter said. “We had arrived at a compromise before (Fabian’s meeting). We had arrived at a consensus, but now we have to backtrack.”

Larter, adding the plan also had the blessing of county commissioners, said it was inappropriate for the ag commissioner to have such a role in wildlife management.

“Does the DNR dictate the agricultural policy in the state?” he asked, rhetorically.

Larter said the minority of farmers that oppose elk are generally just opposed to the DNR, and anything the agency proposes.

“There was a guy that stood up at the meeting who said to shoot every one of them,” Larter said.

While Larter said that most of the area farmers are OK with what he called modest expansion plans, some of the opposition has abused the state Department of Ag’s depredation program, which pays out claims to farmers who have sustained losses from elk and wolves.

“This is taxpayer money that has been set aside to nullify their losses,” Larter said. “It’s not to make them a fortune.”

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