The potential for reintroducing elk to Northeastern Minnesota looks feasible according to two recent studies.
The University of Minnesota’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, the Minnesota Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa conducted joint studies of both the habitat availability and social acceptance for reintroducing elk.
Elk used to range across most of the state, but were practically wiped out by the early 1900s. Now, there are only three groups of elk that remain, all in northwestern Minnesota.
This study focused on three potential locations for elk: 681 square miles in the Cloquet Valley State Forest, 296 square miles in the Fond du Lac Reservation and State Forest, and 372 square miles in the Nemadji State Forest. Study areas consisted of habitat suitable for elk that was also 60-75% public land with low road densities.
According to Mike Schrage, Fond du Lac wildlife biologist, Resource Management Division, the University surveyed 8,500 landowners and members of the public across northern Pine, Carlton and St. Louis counties for their attitudes on elk and spent two years collecting field and geographic information system (GIS) mapping data on habitat.
Schrage stated in a recent email, “To be clear, this study was only designed to assess the suitable habitat and public support questions. I believe we succeeded in demonstrating we have both. Although these are critical pieces to have, there are many additional steps to consider if this process is to move forward from here.
“Among other things, we would need to determine how and if we can bring elk here while minimizing the risk of Chronic Wasting Disease, a source herd or herds would have to be identified, funds would have to be raised and decisions made on how to manage elk once they’re here.
“What happens next will be determined by agency and political leaderships and members of the public ...” added Schrage.
The study areas contained adequate winter and summer forage for elk as compared to areas where elk are currently in Wisconsin. The biologists sampled a total of 186 field plots across a mixture of public and private land covered in coniferous and mixed forests, forested shrub wetlands and grasslands.
Another key finding is that northeastern Minnesota could support similar population densities of elk as currently found in Wisconsin and Michigan. That amounts to about five to eight elk per 6-square-mile area during the winter. Those areas could support more elk in summer, but the availability of winter forage is a limiting factor for wildlife population growth.
That limit is what is known as the winter carrying capacity. It is estimated the Cloquet Valley could support an average of 551 elk, the Fond du Lac area could support an average of 287, and the Nemadji study area could support 481 elk on average.
Aspen is a food of choice in the winter for elk, and the Cloquet Valley study area had the most aspen. They will also eat chokecherry and willow. In the summer, elk switch to grazing on grasses, forbs (herbs other than grass), and deciduous shrub and tree leaves.
Most landowners supported the idea of reintroducing elk. Overall, 82% of landowners who owned 9.88 acres or more (4 hectares) within the study areas who responded to the questionnaire regarded elk reintroduction favorably, while 86% of those residents who owned less acreage responded favorably to elk reintroduction.
The potential for human-elk conflict was greater in the Nemadji study area with risk decreasing going north; however, overall, the risk for conflict was low in all three areas.
The study mentioned factors that reduce public support for wild, free-ranging elk. Elk like to eat along road rights of way due to the grasses and forbs found there. They also can damage fencing and eat row crops, hay bales, grain and silage. Another concern is the potential for elk to transmit disease to domestic livestock.
In-depth landowner views
One of the studies focused solely on social acceptance of wild, free-ranging elk. That study surveyed 4,500 private landowners and 4,000 local residents from inside and surrounding the study areas. The adjusted response rate was 60%for landowners and 46% for residents.
Noted among the findings were the following:
• Hunters tended to view elk reintroduction more favorably than nonhunters (81% versus 75%).
• Non-farmers viewed elk more favorably than farmers (82% versus 73%).
• Timber producing landowners were less supportive (76%) compared to non-producers (81%).