Efforts to limit northwest MN elk population continue

By Joe Albert
Contributing Writer

Bemidji, Minn. — For the first time since 2013, elk hunters in northwestern Minnesota’s Kittson County will be able to kill cow elk during the fall seasons, which this year run Sept. 9-17 and Oct. 7-15.

During the first season, three bulls-only licenses and one antlerless-only license are available in the Kittson Central zone, while two bulls-only licenses are available in the Kittson Northeast zone. The same licenses are available in the Kittson Central zone for the second season, and three bulls-only licenses are available for the second season in the Kittson Northeast zone. The application deadline was June 16.

The increased number of permits is the result of elk populations in Kittson County that continue to rise. During an aerial survey earlier this year, DNR Wildlife officials counted 61 elk in the Lancaster herd, which is nine more than last year and nearly double the number counted in 2014 and 2015. The herd that crosses the international border with Canada is doing well, too.

“We have native elk herds and managing them involves balancing the benefit they provide to all Minnesotans with the damage these large animals do to fences and crops,” said Adam Murkowski, DNR big-game program leader. “Our elk-management plan provides background and guidance on our elk management and research.”

An updated version of the DNR’s elk-management plan remains a work in progress, in part because of legislation passed during the 2016 session that precludes the DNR from managing elk “in a manner that would increase the size of the herd, including adoption or implementation of an elk-management plan designed to increase an elk herd, unless the commissioner of agriculture verifies that crop and fence damages paid … and attributed to the herd have not increased for at least two years.”

During the recently concluded session, lawmakers clarified that language pertained only to Kittson, Roseau, Marshall, and Beltrami counties – not the east-central part of the state, where the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and others are exploring the possibility of restoring elk.

During fiscal year 2016, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture paid nearly $48,000 in claims related to elk damage, an increase of about $9,000 from the previous year.

“It’s really kind of status quo right now for just about all of that work up there according to the plan,” said John Williams, DNR regional wildlife manager in Bemidji.

Researchers are continuing to monitor female elk that were fitted with radio collars in February 2016. Twenty animals originally were collared; 18 of them are still alive. The two that died apparently succumbed to natural causes, Williams said.

Researchers plan to collect data through next June and, according to the DNR, use the information to:

• Identify habitats most commonly used by elk and potentially make those areas more suitable for them

• Speed elk population surveys and improve their effectiveness

• Better determine elk population goals to minimize landowner and farmer conflicts yet still provide recreational opportunities for elk viewing and hunting

“The continuation of that project through this year and into next will do us some good,” Williams said.

Grygla still a tough nut

For the fifth year in a row, hunters won’t be allowed to target elk from the Grygla herd. Aerial surveys earlier this year showed just 17 animals in that herd. That result was “sobering,” said Joel Huener, manager of the Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area.

Elk don’t have twins, and they don’t have calves until they’re 3 years old, he said. While there hasn’t been hunting for animals in that herd since 2012, Huener noted recent surveys have shown fewer than half the animals in the herd are females.

“The potential reproduction is slower,” he said. “You’re not going to be looking at making big strides.”

Williams says officials aren’t certain what’s going on with the Grygla herd.

“We’ve had elk that we have recovered that have been poached in the past, but whether that’s been a problem in the last year or two, I can’t say,” he said. “Certainly, there are all sorts of other reasons elk can perish.”

Huener said it’s been a few years since there were depredation complaints related to the Grygla herd.

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