Nearly driven from the state 100 years ago, the elk has regained such a hold in the northwest part of Minnesota that farmers and wildlife managers agree they have become an expensive nuisance.
Between 150 and 250 elk are roaming that corner of the state, the most since the late 1800s, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. They include about 50 elk near Grygla in Marshall County, and the rest in Kittson County on the Canadian border. Those elk are believed to stem from a herd that originally came from Manitoba.
Dennis Simon, the DNR's wildlife management section chief, said a subset of the Kittson County elk around Lancaster have caused the most trouble.
"They're in our hay all the time, eating and urinating," said Rodney Potrament, 63, who farms on 1,600 acres there. "They'll eat all the corn in your garden. Last year my [harvested] oats were full of elk droppings. It's a bad deal."
Potrament and his neighbors are reaping what the Legislature first sowed in 1913, when it appropriated $5,000 to try to reintroduce elk. Several attempts failed. Finally, in the 1940s, a population began to thrive near Grygla. By the 1950s, farmers there were reporting crop damage.
Responding to their complaints, the Legislature directed the DNR in the 1980s to relocate the Grygla herd to the Red Lake Indian Reservation. "They tried baiting, and corralling and airlifting them with helicopters," Simon said. "It was kind of a fiasco. A number got away, and a number died."
The state then took to issuing hunting permits to try to keep the Grygla herd in check, and last year began the same strategy for the Lancaster-area elk. Twelve elk were killed near each town, but the herds have continued to grow.
Mysterious ear tags
The state also issues limited numbers of special permits to farmers to shoot nuisance elk. Farmers are also compensated for crop damage, from a fund that doles out up to $100,000 annually. But last year damage claims grew so numerous that the fund dried up and won't be replenished until July 1, further angering farmers.
"They've got the money to fly their helicopter around every day, but they can't pay the farmers," Potrament complained. The farmers also worry that the elk could infect cattle with a disease, although the DNR said there is no evidence that is occurring.
Simon said the DNR understands why farmers are upset, especially in Kittson County where the herd seemed to grow exponentially in the past couple of years.
"It got away from us,'' Simon said. "We should have been on top of it three, four years ago."
Farmers are further aggravated that several of the elk shot around Lancaster had ear tags or tag-holes. They wonder whether some group that wants elk to flourish in Minnesota is releasing them. The tagged elk seem less afraid of humans, making them more prone to hang around farms and damage crops.
The DNR agrees that those elk are especially troublesome but disagrees about their origin.
"We think someone who had elk on a ranch somewhere couldn't maintain them and released them," Simon said. "They're causing a lot of damage because they don't behave like wild animals. I think we were a little slow to understand that."
Simon said that the DNR plans to schedule meetings this spring around Lancaster and Grygla, to share information with farmers and gather ideas to help craft a new elk management plan. Since Minnesota and Manitoba have shared stewardship of commingled herds, there's potential for "a bit of a sticky international issue," he said.
"We need to find a balance between what the landowners will tolerate and the public wants in terms of having this majestic animal in our state," Simon said.
Larry Oakes • 1-800-266-9648