Study could repopulate elk in NE Minn.

Elk could return to NE Minnesota, pending the results of a potential study.

Tiffany Lukk

If a proposed University of Minnesota study gets funded, Kentucky elk could be in for a rude awakening.
 
Elk, once considered pests, would be brought to northeastern Minnesota in trucks and released into the woods.
 
That’s if a study to determine the social and environmental impacts of reintroducing elk to the region goes to plan. University researchers and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa hope to get funds for the study this spring.
 
Elk ranges in Minnesota have decreased dramatically in the past 150 years. Elk are known to eat crops, which has earned them the animosity of some.
 
There are currently between 30 and 40 elk roaming northeastern Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. That number is decreasing.
 
The disappearance of elk from the area has left a hole in the food chain, said Mike Schrage, a Fond du Lac Reservation wildlife biologist.
 
“Nature doesn’t like vacuums, so she tends to fill it with something,” he said.
 
Schrage proposed the study a year ago. Fisheries and wildlife professors James Forester and David Fulton would lead the $375,000 study, if approved, Schrage said.
 
The researchers have already gotten some funding from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Minnesota Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is funded by tax on the state’s lottery tickets Schrage said.
 
A state committee recommended last month that the study go through, but the Legislature must still approve it, which Fulton said will happen in spring. 
 
The researchers also need to raise about $35,000 more, Schrage said.
 
Forester and a post-doctoral student would try to determine where elks would be best-suited in northeastern Minnesota.
 
Fulton and a PhD student would look at the social aspect of reintroducing elk to the area.
 
Many people dislike the idea of having a herd of elk live near them — especially if they grow food, said Steve Merchant, the DNR’s wildlife populations and regulations program manager.
 
“Elk are a native animal to Minnesota, and many people think that it’s appropriate to have the full complement of native animals that were once here,” he said.
 
Fulton would survey communities in northeastern Minnesota to see which areas would be most welcoming to an elk herd near them, Fulton said.
 
Though the study itself won’t involve reintroducing elk, they could be brought back if researchers find a suitable place for them.
 
In that case, they would stay in quarantine for a while because if released right away, Schrage said, the elk might scatter.
 
“The trick now is to hold them in captivity and then leave the gate open one day and let them wander around on their own,” Schrage said.
 
Restoring elk to the area is important for the future because elk are adaptable animals that could survive climate change, Schrage said, pointing to their range, which extends from Arkansas to Alaska.
 
“I think elk is a good way to prepare for any future changes that are coming,” Schrage said.
 
The Fond du Lac band and the University researchers said they’re hopeful they’ll find the remaining funds to finance the study and that the Legislature will approve the study.