Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Ailene Croup
Moose Lake Star Gazette 

Band wants elk back


Michael Schrage, a wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band’s resource management division, requested verbal support from commissioners at Pine County’s regular board meeting last week. He asked them to support the Fond du Lac Band’s mission to reintroduce elk into St. Louis and Carlton counties and northern Pine County.

“It’s about restoring heritage, not just tribal heritage,” Schrage said.

The county’s vote of support would be taken to the state legislature in May to leverage funds for a feasibility study on the elk project.

Schrage said elk were native to Minnesota and gave a brief history of elk in the state. He said there had been several attempts to reintroduce elk to Minnesota but the herds did not grow.

He called elk “generalists” explaining the animal will survive climate change. Elk prefer to feed on grass and will also eat aspen. The best habitat, he said, would be dominated by forest with little or no agriculture and would require “actively managed” timber harvest.

“Where people want to put up with them, they are adaptable. It’s a social thing,” Schrage added.

He mentioned the controversy about a managed herd of elk, farmers in that area and legislation passed because of damage by the herd.

Elk have migrated from Canada across the border into Kittson County and there is also a population of Rocky Mountain elk that were brought into the state. The Red Lake Game Preserve had a herd that grew and expanded its grazing area to the farmed fields around it.

Just to the south of Kittson is Marshall County where the town of Grygla is located. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages the herd near Grygla.

The herd grew, grazed in the farmers’ fields and damaged their crops.

In 1985, farmers lobbied to remove the elk. The DNR used helicopters and tranquilizing guns to subdue the animals and round them up. One tranquilized bull drowned. The Sierra Club brought a lawsuit against the DNR to stop the roundup.

The state legislature, in 1987, voted to pay farmers for their crop damage and contain the herd to 20-30 animals, which would include a hunting season to keep the numbers down. Farmers have been compensated more than $55,000 for their loss of crops due to damage by elk in the years since the legislation. It took many years to establish a hunting season. Last year, nine elk tags were handed out and six were filled.

If Fond du Lac’s project is feasible and a herd is established in the three counties, the natives could hunt but the elk would be protected from other hunters.

“Some day we would have enough elk for a limited hunting season. At this point we don’t have support from the DNR,” Schrage said. “We’ve got to have patience. It’s a 10-year process before we get elk.”

Schrage anticipates a cost of $337,000 for the feasibility study with a total cost of $2 million to introduce a herd.

Commissioner Curt Rossow of Willow River asked if the Fond du Lac Band has contributed to the project.

Schrage said they had contributed $15,000 to the initial study and will add another $15,000. “If it’s a go, we will go back to the Band for more money and other sources.”

Rossow asked why they hadn’t considered another species such as moose or woodland bison, once native to this area.

The moose population never increases. “This seems to be too far south,” Schrage said. “We were considering caribou but they need old growth,” he explained. The Minnesota blowdown and the forest fires up north destroyed the older forest.

“I think the agricultural community would have something to say about bison. I don’t think the public would accept them.”

Schrage said they plan to go to the legislature this spring to apply for funding and if their application is successful, they’ll be ready to start the study in July.

“Doing feasibility studies doesn’t mean we will get elk,” he said. It will rely on how they manage the elk, finding a source herd and funding for them.

Pine County commissioners voted 4-1 to support the project. Rossow voted no.


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