If problems facing many residents in northwest Minnesota occurred in the Twin Cities, riots would break out. But because small towns such as Greenbush, Grygla and Lancaster are so far from the metro, and the Capitol, troubles besetting residents there generate little attention.


• The region's bovine tuberculosis outbreak in recent years has wiped out multiple herds of cattle and threatened the livelihoods of hundreds of people. By one estimate, 13,000 fewer cattle are on the land in the area, having been "depopulated" (killed) by the government in an attempt to control TB not only in livestock, but in deer.

• Federal sharpshooters again this week in the TB "hot zone" are trying to shoot as many deer as possible -- perhaps as many as 600. Whether TB was first brought to the region by cattle or deer is widely debated. Either way, deer could convey the disease to nearby regions, and as a result are being targeted this winter in the hot zone, as they were last winter.

• Add to this challenges associated with the northwest's growing elk herd. Some elk are eating ranchers' and farmers' stored winter livestock feed. Some are pawing and eating alfalfa, requiring replanting in spring. And some, in summer, eat sunflowers and other crops.

Already, five elk have been killed by farmers and ranchers, with permission of the Department of Natural Resources.

"Elk have become a hot-button issue in the northwest," DNR wildlife section chief Dave Schad said.

Joe Burkel owns Burkel Grain Service in Greenbush. He sells feed from the North Dakota line to International Falls and into Canada. The TB outbreak -- distant as it has been so far from Greenbush -- has cost him a lot of money in feed sales, he said.

"The economic and psychological stress all of this puts on people up here is unbelievable," he said.

The northwest has two basic elk herds. One is by Grygla -- about 50 animals that generally haven't caused problems this winter -- and one is in nearby Kittson County, which is approximately double the size of the Grygla herd.

A subset of the Kittson County herd that hangs out near Lancaster has become especially troublesome.

Paul Telander, DNR regional wildlife manager stationed in Bemidji, said a hunting season last fall focused on the Lancaster herd in an attempt to reduce its size and change the behavior of remaining animals.

"Some animals in this herd were originally domestic elk," Telander said. "We've been pretty aggressive in eliminating those, and we've hoped that over time the elk near Lancaster would become more wary of people and spend more time in the woods."

That hasn't worked yet, Burkel said.

"Some of the elk will lay right in the middle of a county road," he said. "You can walk right up behind some of them. They're domesticated."

Minnesota doesn't pay farmers for damage done by wildlife except for domestic livestock losses by wolves and crop damage by elk.

But the state fund from which farmers and ranchers receive crop and domestic livestock loss payments is broke, and will be until at least July 1, the beginning of the government's fiscal year.

"The claims run from as low as $2,000 to as much as $20,000 or $30,000," Burkel said. "No one is getting paid."

The DNR has problems aplenty in the northwest without elk-human conflicts. In addition to bovine TB and the hardships it has caused for people, cattle and deer, long-simmering clashes over ATV use on wildlife management areas and other lands have caused deep rifts between the agency and many locals.

Schad, the DNR wildlife section chief, said the DNR will schedule meetings with area residents to help shape a new elk management plan.

"We need to agree on what the population is, what we want it to be, how to manage the herd and how to compensate people for damage," he said.

Meanwhile, Telander and others in the DNR are working with county extension agents to help farmers and ranchers better protect their stored winter forage from elk and deer.

The help can't come soon enough, Burkel said.

"The majority of people up here enjoy seeing the elk," he said. "But they can't afford to feed them."

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com