Cattle trailers filled with wild elk captured from the eastern mountains of Kentucky will roll to Black River Falls, Wis., in the coming months as part of a five-year reintroduction of the animals to the meadows, marshes and woods of Jackson County.
“We are keeping very detailed notes and documents on how we do this,” said Kevin Wallenfang, Wisconsin’s big game manager, who left for the Appalachians on Friday.
Wildlife biologist Mike Schrage of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is watching closely. If he succeeds with a similar plan, a region west and south of Duluth could become the elk capital of Minnesota. So far, his efforts are paying off.
“It looks like a solid proposal,” said Rich Staffon, a retired Minnesota state wildlife manager who is president of the Duluth Chapter of the Izaak Walton League. “He’s taking the right approach, and he’s gotten good support.”
A major boost for the concept came late last year from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). The commission recommended $300,000 in state funding for feasibility research to be led by the University of Minnesota. The proposed study of habitat suitability and public acceptance would be supported with $45,000 in matching funds from the Fond du Lac band and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
If the Legislature approves, the three-year study would begin this summer.
“We want to make sure it’s a sound, workable idea that has good public support,” Schrage said.
Undoubtedly, Schrage’s vision of hundreds of elk thriving in Nemadji State Forest and other woodlands is coming into focus for an increasing number of government officials, environmentalists, hunters and academics. At the invitation of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources this month, he presented his idea to outdoors stakeholders from around the state.
The early list of supporters includes the DNR, the area’s three county boards, Izaak Walton League members in Duluth, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, the Minnesota chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, United Northern Sportsmen, Minnesota Conservation Association and the University of Minnesota.
The DNR manages about 130 wild elk in northwestern Minnesota. But over the past 100 years, conflicts have built up with farmers and ranchers who have experienced crop and hay depredation. “Elk really enjoy what the farmers do up here,” said Dan Anderson of Roseau, a director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association.
A new elk management plan for the northwest is nearing completion by the DNR, including a goal of gradually doubling the small herd in Kittson County to 65-75 elk. But area wildlife manager John Williams said the cattlemen’s association recently “voiced concerns” about the goal and asked for an extension of the public comment period to weigh in. The request was granted.
Meanwhile, the DNR has reported that elk populations in the northwest could be suffering from poaching. Investigators still are trying to solve a blatant killing near Grygla in 2013, when two rare bull elk were shot illegally and left. Staffon said certain people in that area hold anti-DNR sentiments uncommon in other areas of the state.
Eventually, that could make the new target area for elk — all of Carlton County and pieces of Pine and St. Louis counties — the state’s best hope for creating a large elk presence. Besides gracing the woods with their grand appearance, elk also would contribute to the biodiversity of their surroundings without hurting deer populations, backers say. And wildlife enthusiasts say the sound of an elk bugling is as mystic and memorable as a loon calling, an eagle screeching or a wolf howling.
“We look at it as restoring part of Minnesota’s wildlife heritage,” said James Forester, a professor at the U’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology. “It’s a powerful symbol.”
Like bison, elk once ranged over much of Minnesota and most of the country before western settlement. The key to reintroducing them — as states like Kentucky, Michigan and Wisconsin already have learned — is choosing areas away from agriculture.
Forester, who would spearhead the proposed habitat research, said the animals are highly adaptable and would benefit from the prevalence of timber cutting in the region, including forage in new-growth areas.
Forester said he was a University of Wisconsin doctoral student when that state first reintroduced elk in the Clam Lake area south of Ashland.
He said early research showed the animals stay close to home when food sources are plentiful. Elk are more traditionally staged in areas with more grass and fewer trees, but the animals can use forests to hide from predators and distance themselves from people, he said. He anticipates “limited downsides” in the proposed habitat area.
Schrage, too, said agriculture in the proposed elk range isn’t intensive.
Wisconsin officials already have demonstrated that bears and wolves prey on elk, causing limited but yearly losses. In addition, there are tick-borne diseases and other mortality factors. That’s why Schrage is proposing that Minnesota start with 200-300 elk “in order for them to produce enough calves and keep the herd growing.” He envisions about one to two elk per square mile, similar to the density of better moose ranges.
“Ultimately, I believe the number of elk we can have on the landscape is going to depend on how well people like elk and want them around,” Schrage said.
The expansive Nemadji forest along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, near the towns of Kerrick, Duquette and Nickerson, is envisioned as the southern end of the proposed elk range. But Staffon of the Izaak Walton League said it’s exciting to think that widespread public acceptance of the animals might lead to populations as far south as St. Croix State Park near Osceola, Wis.
But that’s getting far ahead. Wallenfang of the Wisconsin DNR said. Jackson County was chosen as an elk range back in 1995. The first 26 elk from Kentucky were released there last March and the state has four more chances to capture up to 50 per year for additional release.
Wallenfang said reintroduction hurdles include public acceptance, legislative approval, money, availability of lands, sourcing the elk (Kentucky has a waiting list) and keeping disease from the herd. “There’s a lot of stars that need to align,” he said.