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 throughout 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, beginning in 1893, elk were protected in Minnesota. 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 moved in.
Yet the large cervids -- bulls can reach weights of more than 800 pounds -- weren't absent from Minnesota for long; maybe they never entirely were. Nonetheless, the absence of elk was concern enough and, in 1913, the Minnesota state legislature allocated $5,000 for a plan to bring back elk into the state. As soon as the following two years, 1914-1915, 70 elk were introduced into a holding facility at Itasca State Park. Those translocated animals came from Jackson Hole, Wyo., and from a private farm in Ramsey County, Minn.
The Itasca State Park 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 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 their success was followed by 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 to shoot elk and, by 1976, the first elk management plan was drafted.
In 1985, farmers from the Grygla area successfully lobbied the state legislature to mandate that the Department of Natural Resources relocate all of the elk from a four-county area. Hence, along with a legislative appropriation of $10,000 from the non-game fund, came the ill fated "elk roundup."
With the construction of a massive western-style corral and use of a helicopter, attempts were made to force wild elk into the corral for capture and eventual relocation. However, after only 14 elk were captured and nine elk relocated to the Red Lake Indian Reservation, a lawsuit, filed by the Sierra Club and other organizations, stopped the roundup in December 1986. Soon after, 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 when one bull and one cow were harvested. Since then, several more hunts have been held, including hunts throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Given the small size of the Grygla elk herd not many hunting permits are issued, yet, when hunts are offered (Minnesota residents only), interest is very high -- applications typically number into the hundreds and far exceed what will eventually be awarded, usually no more than half a dozen.
In 2007, for example, only six antlerless permits were issued. For that hunt, no bull tags were issued at all because two bulls were harvested in 2006 and four other bull mortalities were documented. The death of six bulls in 2006 warranted closing the hunting season on bulls altogether for the Minnesota 2007 elk hunt.
Today, the Grygla herd, as it's called, is not the only herd of elk in Minnesota. Another herd, located in Kittson County, spends time in both Minnesota and Manitoba. The population is estimated to be somewhere between 100 to 125 head. This Kittson County border-herd appears to be growing and slightly expanding its range.
Elk in Minnesota seem to be doing well. Management efforts include improving elk habitat through timber harvest, brushland shearing projects, prescribed burning activities and food plot development. Developing high quality food plots, for instance, has become an integral component of elk management in agricultural areas because it helps keep elk from feeding exclusively on farmers' crops.
Indeed, bugling bull elk, followed by rutting bull moose in October and the November white-tailed deer breeding season, can be observed and heard during their September breeding season in northwestern Minnesota. And with that, a very good reason to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org