If ever there is a native creature inhabiting Minnesota not named white-tailed deer that comes as prepared for a warmer climate, is disposed to fill niches that moose have largely left behind in some parts of the state, or, simply put, is as adaptive, then it’s the elk. Here in Minnesota, a place where elk once flourished but were nearly extirpated because of unregulated hunting and habitat loss, elk are back, but barely.
Today, three small herds of wild, native elk live in northwest Minnesota. One herd, the International Border herd, often called the Caribou-Vita herd named for Vita, Manitoba and Caribou, Minn., is the state’s largest herd. Though this herd fluctuates in size on the Minnesota side of the Manitoba border, collectively, as many as 150 or more elk have been surveyed by Minnesota and Manitoba biologists, with the vast majority of the herd, however, living in Manitoba.
Another herd, sometimes called the Kittson Central herd, is comprised of two small sub-groups of elk located southwest of the border herd near Lancaster, which is a small town in Kittson County between Hallock and Karlstad. This herd also varies in number and was surveyed last year at a little over 90 animals.
Minnesota’s other elk herd is located near the town of Grygla, southeast of the aforementioned populations. This small band of elk totals less than 20 animals and appears to be at risk of disappearing if female elk continue to decline in number or if no other elk migrate to this area from elsewhere.
And yet, despite Minnesota’s small population of elk, something unusual seems to be happening even though it’s not all that abnormal for elk. You see, elk are natural nomads. Across the species’ range throughout the North American continent where elk exist, elk migrate — and often very long distances. They do this for a number of reasons, largely food and weather driven, but also, in some cases, to populate unoccupied range.
Over the past few years, elk have been showing up in other places throughout Minnesota apart from the primary population that’s located in the northwest corner of the state. A couple of bull elk were struck by vehicles not far from Crookston and Thief River Falls. A bull elk was captured on a trail camera near Bagley. And a couple of bull elk have been observed near Park Rapids and Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge near Detroit Lakes. There have also been reports of bull elk observed in southern Minnesota, too.
Just last month, southwest of Bemidji, a fisherman took photographs and a video of two elk — a young bull sporting a velvet-covered rack and a cow — purportedly swimming across Lake Plantagenet in Hubbard County. No one seems to know the whereabouts of these two animals now, but it must’ve been quite the surprise for the fisherman!
While elk observations outside of what is believed to be their primary range in northwest Minnesota are largely single elk encounters (typically young bulls), there is reason for optimism for those people who support having more elk in Minnesota. Indeed, a small band of elk might be attempting to establish a foothold in another part of the state. At least five elk, possibly more, have been observed numerous times over the past several years not far from towns of Twin Valley and Ada in Norman County.
A bull from this herd was mistakenly and illegally shot and killed by a deer hunter a few years ago, but it’s been reliably reported and substantiated that around five of the animals have remained in the county and are using both public and private land for food and shelter. The interesting news about the Norman County elk is that both bulls and cows make up the small group, so reproduction could be happening and thus growth and further distribution of the herd is entirely possible. It remains to be seen, however, what the future holds for these elk. Moreover, it’s unknown where the animals came from in the first place. After all, there are elk in North Dakota, and Norman County borders that state.
That this majestic, native animal still calls Minnesota home is remarkable in the sense that they were nearly wiped out decades ago. And — mostly on their own — that descendants of Minnesota’s elk are possibly expanding their range, is something special to appreciate and become interested in as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.