Before European settlement, there were thousands of omashkoozoog (elk) in what is now the state of Minnesota. Unfortunately, overhunting and habitat loss associated with colonization decimated the population. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is taking first steps to reverse this loss by evaluating the potential for bringing elk back to its reservation, as well as to portions of the 1837 and 1854 Treaty ceded territories in northeastern Minnesota.
The Fond du Lac Reservation Business Council has passed a resolution in which it determined that restoring a wild elk population is in the best interests of the band, and Fond du Lac’s Chairwoman, Karen Diver has highlighted the idea in her state of the Band report each of the past two years.
As a result, the band, in conjunction with the University of Minnesota, is submitting a grant proposal for approximately $337,000 to the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources to evaluate the restoration of elk to this part of its former range. If restored, it would be the first time elk would freely roam this region in over a century.
Funding through the commission, which draws from a combination of state lottery proceeds and investment income, would help pay for two parallel studies by the University of Minnesota. The first would explore whether the region has adequate habitat to support an elk population. The second study would evaluate whether residents in this region support the restoration of elk.
A driving reason behind this research is resilience. According to Mike Schrage, the wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band, elk are generalists, capable of thriving in many habitat types. This makes elk more likely than moose, for example, to be successful in the face of a warming climate. Some ecologists project that the advance of climate change will cause Minnesota’s great north woods to be transformed into open savannas like those found further to the south, a landscape well suited for elk.
Schrage maintains that the Fond du Lac Band is not giving up on moose. However, with the uncertainties surrounding the decline of Minnesota’s moose population, whitetail deer may ultimately be the only large ungulate left roaming this region. This would leave unthinkable ecological and cultural gaps in this part of Indian country, with moose being a historic thread in the ecological fabric of the north woods, a significant food staple, and an important part of tribal hunting heritage. Restoration of elk could help fill these gaps.
When evaluating habitat suitability, biologists consider two things—quantity and quality. The 1837 and 1854 ceded territories appear to have both of these ingredients. An animal that can move great distances, elk need lots of space, something this region does not lack. Carlton County alone, which is in the heart of the area being considered for potential restoration, has approximately 180,000 acres of public land, according to Greg Bernu, the county’s land commissioner.
As for habitat type, elk prefer open brush lands and grasslands for foraging, and forested areas for winter and security cover. The presence of an active forest products industry in northeastern Minnesota helps in this regard. Intensive forest management here results in a relatively young forest, which according to Bernu, provides ideal elk habitat while also supporting the local economy.
While available habitat appears to be favorable, social acceptance may be challenging. According to Rich Staffon, a retired state wildlife manager for the area being considered for elk restoration, the elephant in the room is potential conflict with agriculture.
Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Natural Resource Management Division
Conflict surrounding an elk population found in Minnesota’s far northwestern corner provides a painful illustration of this point. In the early 20th century, a small number of elk were released on failed farmland in this region. The herd quickly grew, and as these abandoned lands grew back into forest, the elk moved into areas with still-active farms and caused crop damage, to the consternation of local farmers. Meanwhile a larger herd of Manitoba elk joined the fray after dispersing south into Minnesota. Though this nomadic northern herd was not as troublesome as its southern brethren, the animals still were not welcomed with open arms by the farming community. According to Staffon, this has led to the northwestern herd being managed at a very low population threshold to reduce tensions, and the state is required to compensate landowners for damage caused by the animals.
The hope is that in northeastern Minnesota, the public will be accepting of elk because this landscape is not shaped by agriculture. Staffon notes that the farms that do exist here tend to be small livestock operations, where conflicts with elk may not be as likely.
Schrage believes that, if undertaken, restoration efforts will be a 10-year, one-million-dollar plus effort. He bases these estimates on the number of animals that must be introduced to successfully establish a herd. Schrage contends that the initial herd needs to be 200 to 300 animals brought in over several years, numbers sufficient to mitigate losses caused by predation by local wolves and bears. This no small challenge. Schrage says that not only must a state with an existing elk herd be willing to share their animals, but also the animals must be trapped and quarantined to ensure they are disease free.
Schrage is making the rounds, garnering support for this effort. Thus far, the band has secured letters of support from two counties, Carlton and Pine, and has been in communication with conservation organizations, including the Izaak Walton League, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, noted that his organization would definitely submit a letter stating its support for this effort in response to a presentation made to his board by Schrage in February.
According to Schrage, a point that lends itself to support from sportsmen groups such as the Deer Hunters is that elk will be a resource for both tribal and non-tribal hunters if re-established. Schrage emphasizes that though the proposed study is the result of tribal initiative, reintroduced elk would belong to everyone, with the tribes regulating their member hunters, and the state regulating non-tribal hunters. According to Engwall, the prospect of the return of a native big game animal that would be available to hunt is exciting.
“If elk are brought back, we see ourselves working in collaboration with the tribes and others to get the habitat management right, much like we are doing with the Moose Habitat Collaborative here in Minnesota,” said Engwall.
“Minnesota DNR supports the Fond du Lac Chippewa Band’s efforts to conduct an elk reintroduction feasibility study,” said Leslie McInenly, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s (DNR) big game program leader. McInenly highlighted the value of collaborative work with the Bands in northeastern Minnesota, such as research efforts involving the state’s declining moose population, and noted that the information generated from the Fond du Lac studies will be useful in future years as the state updates its statewide plan for elk. According to McInenly, who previously worked on elk translocation efforts and habitat use in Alberta, the DNR will use the biological and social results of the two studies to determine whether or not to support an elk reintroduction effort.
Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Natural Resource Management Division
If the research shows that there is both suitable habitat and social acceptance, the Fond du Lac Band and its collaborators will have good examples to follow in implementing restoration. Elk have been successfully reintroduced in parts Minnesota’s two north woods neighbors—Wisconsin and Michigan. In addition, several other eastern states have returned elk to portions of their previous range, the most notable being Kentucky, which began its restoration efforts in the late 1990s and now boasts an elk population estimated at 10,000 animals.
Regardless of all of the apparent challenges, Mike Schrage feels Fond du Lac has a moral imperative to evaluate the return of elk. According to Schrage, restoring an elk population to Fond du Lac’s Treaty ceded territories is about returning a native species and preparing for future climate change.
“I don’t know for sure what climate change is going to look like in twenty, fifty or a hundred years from now in Minnesota, but it’s coming in some form, and we may lose some of our species which are on the southern edge of their range here,” Schrage said. “Elk are a tough, adaptable animal. Any critter that can make a living from Arkansas and Missouri all the way up to the Canadian Rockies will survive most anything climate change throws at us.”
Doug Thompson is a Duluth attorney focused on assisting with natural resource and environmental issues in Indian country.