Last fall in the rugged Rocky Mountains of northwestern Colorado while hunting mule deer, a big blow came howling down from the High Country, bringing with it, when it was all said and done, a foot of snow. Our encampment was located at around 8,500 feet, so we assumed that snow was probably deeper at higher elevations. I think we were right.
Within hours after the two-day snowfall event ended, 100 to 150 head of elk came down the mountain, evidently pushed toward the valleys by deep snow and hunger. It was impressive, especially when I encountered the wide swath through the snow where the herd had passed through.
I observed places where individual animals pawed through the snow in search of grasses. I also noticed something else that has always interested me: I found aspen trees, both standing trees and freshly fallen trees, partially stripped of bark as if giant beavers had descended from the slopes, eating everything in their path.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation recognizes Minnesota as an official elk state. Yet despite this esteemed acknowledgment by an organization that has done much to promote elk and preserve elk habitat, few people in Minnesota seem to understand or appreciate the significance. We do indeed have elk inhabiting woodlands of Minnesota. The animals are not escaped, captive-bred elk, but, rather, are wild and free-roaming elk staking out only partial claim of what was originally a much more expansive range across Minnesota and the Great Plains.
In 1840, elk ranged through most of Minnesota. Market hunting for elk was still occurring into the early 1890s. But by 1900, elk only existed in the extreme northwestern corner of the state in a few isolated pockets. By then, elk were protected in Minnesota (beginning in 1893). And it was in 1932 that the last verified sighting of a wild elk in the Northwest Angle occurred. In a very short period of time as Minnesota's timber was being logged and prairie sod plowed, elk began disappearing as settlers began appearing.
Yet the large cervids (bulls can reach weights of over 800 pounds) weren't absent from Minnesota for long; maybe they never entirely were. Nonetheless, the absence of elk was concern enough. In 1913, the Minnesota legislature allocated $5,000 for a plan to bring back elk to the state. As soon as the following two years, 1914-15, 70 elk were introduced into a holding facility in Itasca State Park. Those translocated animals came from Jackson Hole, Wyo., and from a private farm in Ramsey County in Minnesota.
The Itasca animals were intended to be a source herd for future "transplanting" into other areas of Minnesota. However, only 13 elk survived that first year in the park. As the years went by, the Itasca herd grew to 25 animals and, in 1929, eight elk were translocated from the herd to the Stony River Ranger District in Superior National Forest. Unfortunately, these elk were never able to establish a breeding population and eventually disappeared from the area.
Another re-introduction, this time in northern Beltrami County at the Red Lake Game Preserve in 1935, brought 27 elk into the area. These animals rapidly established themselves and did extremely well. The herd grew to more than 100 strong by the 1940s, but with their success came problems with people. The first documented crop and haystack depredation by wild elk occurred in 1939. In 10 years time, crop depredation became severe. Soon after, depredation permits were issued to affected farmers by the state to shoot elk, and, by 1976, the first elk management plan was drafted. A new elk management plan (2009) now exists.
In 1985, farmers from the Grygla area successfully lobbied the Legislature to mandate that the DNR relocate all the elk. Hence, came to be the ill-fated elk "roundup" forced upon the DNR by the legislature. Only nine elk were captured and relocated to the Red Lake Indian Reservation before a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club stopped the roundup.
Two years later, the Legislature decided to compensate landowners for crop damage and to limit the herd to only 20 to 30 animals. Periodic hunts would be held to cull the herd as its size expanded. The first-ever Minnesota elk hunt was held in 1987.
Today, the Grygla herd, as it is called, is not the only herd of elk in Minnesota. Other herds spend their time in Kittson County in Minnesota, as well as across the Minnesota-Canadian border in Manitoba. Elk in Minnesota appear to be thriving. In fact, an enormous bull was harvested north of Lancaster in September, while a record-class bull was euthanized last fall because of a freak accident the animal had had with a fence.
The RMEF believes Minnesota provides the right conditions for elk to flourish. Indeed, followed by rutting bull moose in October and rutting white-tailed deer in November, hearing and seeing bugling bull elk during their September rut is something that not every state can brag about as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.