Elk have a rich, if troubled, history in Minnesota


This fall in the rugged Rocky Mountains of northwest Colorado, while hunting elk with my recurve bow, I spotted a young spike bull elk downslope about 100 feet below me.

The sleek-looking animal with a dark mane, black legs, and a velvet rack, was beautiful and impressive.

Soon joined by another, almost identical looking, spike bull, the two grazed contentedly near each other while I watched unobserved from the distance. Eventually both animals left the mountain glade and disappeared into the forest further downslope. I was thrilled to have seen them.

Here at home in Minnesota, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation recognizes Minnesota as an official elk state. Yet despite this esteemed acknowledgment by an organization that has done so much to promote elk and preserve elk habitat, few people in Minnesota know about the significance of this designation.

Not only do we have elk inhabiting woodlands of northwestern Minnesota, these special, wild and free-ranging native animals, once abundant across Minnesota, have a rich history that is both encouraging and depressing.

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, as Minnesota’s timber was being logged and prairie sod plowed, elk began disappearing as settlement occurred.

Yet the large cervids weren’t absent from Minnesota for long, and maybe they never entirely were. Nonetheless, the absence of elk was concern enough and, in 1913, the Minnesota legislature allocated $5,000 for a plan to return elk to the state. As soon as the following two years, 1914-15, 70 elk were introduced into a holding facility at Itasca State Park. Those translocated animals came from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and from a private farm in Ramsey County, Minnesota.

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The Itasca State Park animals were intended to be a source herd for future translocations to 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 heard 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 over 100 by the 1940s, but with their success came problems with people. The first documented crop and haystack depredation by wild elk occurred in 1939.

Over the following 10 years, 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 (today, a new elk management plan replaced the first one, with a new plan set to be written soon).

In 1985, farmers from the Grygla area successfully lobbied the legislature to mandate that the state relocate all the elk. Hence, came to be the ill-fated elk “roundup” forced upon the state by the legislature. Only nine elk were captured and relocated to land within the Red Lake Nation before a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club stopped the roundup.

Two years later the legislature passed legislation 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 modern Minnesota elk hunt was held in 1987.

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Today, the Grygla herd is not the only herd of elk in Minnesota. Other herds spend their time in Kittson County and Manitoba. The total statewide elk population is presently about 100 to 150, but this number fluctuates because the international border herd is often located in Manitoba.

Some elk from nearby states such as North Dakota and South Dakota are also believed to migrate periodically into Minnesota, too.

Minnesota’s elk appear to be thriving, but a law passed by the legislature a few years ago effectively limits the ability to manage elk populations for growth in northwest Minnesota.

Yet, an encouraging plan to reintroduce elk proposed by Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa could potentially translocate wild elk, or omashkoozoog as known by its Ojibwe name, to northeastern Minnesota someday.

With enormous tracts of public land, RMEF believes that Minnesota provides ideal habitat conditions for elk to flourish and grow. Indeed, hearing and seeing bugling bull elk during their September rutting season is something special that we Minnesotans should appreciate — and want more of throughout our great state — as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>