CLOQUET, Minn. — The Fond du Lac Reservation Business Committee has given the go-ahead for the long-developing effort to restore elk to eastern Minnesota, and tribal officials have asked the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to be a partner in the project.
The tribal approval is the next major step to restoring elk, known in Ojibwe as "omashkooz," to Carlton, southern St. Louis and northern Pine counties, where they were native but have been gone from the landscape for 120 years or more. The decision allows tribal natural resources staff to move from studying the idea to forming a plan to move elk in.
"The RBC believes restoring the wild elk population to areas where band members retain their historic treaty rights is in the Band’s best interests. In addition to restoring part of the Band’s culture, elk are a native species all Minnesotans should be able to enjoy, but whose current range and numbers in the state are greatly limited and tenuous,'' Fond du Lac officials said in a statement Monday. After reviewing positive public opinion and habitat studies by University of Minnesota researchers "the Band intends to continue with next steps in this elk restoration process."
The five-person Reservation Business Committee, also called the Tribal Council, the reservation’s elected government, made the decision at a meeting in early March to continue toward elk restoration but did not confirm the move until Monday.
In a presentation for a webinar hosted by the forestry department at the University of Minnesota, MIke Schrage, Fond du Lac wildlife biologist, said tribal officials have sent the Minnesota DNR a letter asking the state agency charged with wildlife management “to participate with the band in this endeavor.”
Dave Olfelt, fish and wildlife division director for the DNR, said Monday that top agency commissioners received and discussed the letter recently. They have drafted a response.
“We’ve said in the past that we’re supportive of the idea’’ of eastern Minnesota elk reintroduction, Olfelt noted. He declined to elaborate on whether the agency will continue to support the effort until after additional communication with tribal officials.
Despite the tribal approval, many hurdles remain before elk are roaming in northern Minnesota again. The effort needs backing from local and state political and agency leaders, and Gov. Tim Walz and state lawmakers, before advancing. There’s also the matter of finding millions of dollars to pay to relocate elk from other states, or from northwestern Minnesota, into the area.
Schrage said that development of a formal elk management plan — where, how and how many elk should be allowed — is critical before elk arrive and will include state, tribal and local officials as well as public input.
The focus for potential eastern Minnesota elk reintroduction has been on the Nemadji State Forest to the south, the Fond du Lac State Forest in the center and the Cloquet Valley State Forest on the north. Carlton and Pine counties remain on record in support of the plan. St. Louis County commissioners, however, last year voted to ask Fond du Lac to not include the Cloquet Valley State Forest as an elk restoration area citing potential conflicts with farmers.
Another major step will be finding a disease-free source of elk to move here. Interstate movement of elk, deer and other cervids has become a critical issue in the expansion of chronic wasting disease across the country and officials say any source herd for elk will have to be free from CWD.
“Chronic wasting disease is, I think, the biggest hurdle to overcome for this restoration effort,’’ Schrage said in the webinar, noting only dead animals can be tested for CWD “and that doesn’t help a restoration effort.”
One thing that’s clearer is the strong public support for the elk restoration effort. Underway since 2014, the project included a comprehensive study of both habitat availability and public opinion, both of which concluded in 2018 with both saying elk restoration wasn’t just feasible biologically but was also very popular with local residents and landowners.
The University of Minnesota public opinion survey found that 77% of the general public in southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine counties supports the reintroduction of elk in the region. The survey also found 79% of landowners in the potential elk restoration area supports the idea. Meanwhile wildlife biologists and forest experts confirmed that ample elk habitat existed to keep the big animals mostly on public forests in the region.
The three potential elk areas are mostly county, state and tribal forest lands with some potential Superior National Forest land in the far north, as well as parcels of private land throughout.
Elk were native and common across most of Minnesota, including much of east-central Minnesota, before European settlers arrived. But elk were quickly wiped out as logging, farms and over-hunting dominated the region.
Just 80 miles to the east of the eastern Minnesota area under consideration, Wisconsin's Clam Lake elk herd in southern Ashland County, reintroduced 25 years ago, has done a good job at staying out of trouble, so much so that the state in recent years brought more elk into the area where the state's third annual elk hunt will be held this autumn. That hasn't been the case in northwestern Minnesota, where two Minnesota elk herds have often wandered into farmers' fields and damaged crops, spurring state lawmakers to limit any expansion of elk in that area. Schrage has said animosity toward elk in that area of Minnesota might encourage the DNR to move some of those animals east.
In addition to Wisconsin, several other eastern states have reintroduced wild elk herds over the past 100 years, many in recent decades: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee. None have reported any negative impact on deer.
Elk are more able to withstand warmer weather than moose, which are dwindling as Minnesota's climate warms, fostering more disease and more parasites. Elk also are much less susceptible to a brainworm carried by deer that, while harmless to deer, is one of the big reasons Minnesota's moose population has plummeted in the past decade.
More than 25% of moose in a deer-heavy area are estimated to die from the brainworm while generally less than 10% of elk are impacted even in areas with many deer.