St. Louis County commissioners on Tuesday will be asked to take a step back from the county’s earlier support for a plan to return wild elk to eastern Minnesota.
The St. Louis County Land Department in March 2015 drafted a letter to state officials expressing strong support of the long-term study by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to see if elk might be reintroduced to their native habitat in the region.
The study is looking at areas of state forest across southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine County counties for what would be the first wild elk in the region in more than 120 years. So far the study has found strong public support for the reintroduction, both among local residents and local landowners such as farmers. The study also has found widespread, quality habitat for the big animals — namely lots of food to eat on public land.
But one St. Louis County commissioner is asking the County Board to pass a resolution asking the Fond du Lac Band to remove one area entirely — the Cloquet Valley State Forest — from consideration as a possible elk reintroduction area. Keith Nelson of Fayal Township, who represents parts of the Cloquet Valley State Forest, is pushing the resolution to be considered by the board's Committee of the Whole Tuesday. Any final action would likely occur at the board's Aug. 13 meeting.
“While these studies have shown support for the potential restoration/reintroduction of elk, other concerns which may have a negative impact on deer populations, area farmers and public safety also have been identified,’’ Nelson’s resolution notes. “These concerns include crop damage, vehicle/animal accidents, chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis.”
As first reported in the News Tribune in December, the study found that 77 percent of the general public in southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine counties supports the reintroduction of elk in the region. The survey, conducted by University of Minnesota researchers, also found a whopping 79 percent of landowners in the potential elk restoration area supports the idea.
Elk were first reintroduced in Northwestern Wisconsin in 1995 — with dozens more animals released this year, just 80 miles east of the Minnesota border — and have done well. The animals have become popular among local residents and tourists alike. Wildlife biologists say they have seen no impact on the local deer population, and so far the elk have managed to mostly stay out of trouble among farmers and landowners. The elk are quarantined on arrival from other states, to make sure they do not carry any diseases, before being released into the wild.
But a legacy elk herd in Northwestern Minnesota has been far less popular. That herd, reintroduced in the 1930s, has often wandered onto farms, damaging crops and angering landowners.
Both the Pine and Carlton County boards in 2015 passed resolutions supporting the elk study effort. The St. Louis County Board, to this point, hasn't acted on the issue.
Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band, said it’s unclear what impact the County Board resolution, if it passes, would have on the elk effort, which remains in the study stage. So far there is no plan to move any elk into eastern Minnesota; any such effort would require Fond du Lac tribal as well as state approval and would likely cost millions of dollars.
Still, Schrage said, it’s not good for the elk effort to have any possible areas excluded, especially if local support is strong and the science appears to show elk would thrive there.
“While a county resolution against elk will not impact the results of our feasibility study, it could have an important influence on where elk go someday if the process moves forward,’’ Schrage said in an email updating interested parties on the elk study.
Rich Staffon, a retired Minnesota DNR wildlife biologist and now president of the local Izaak Walton League of America chapter, said the elk study should be allowed to continue with all potential areas included.
The McCabe Ikes chapter "strongly supports this project and completion of the feasibility study for all three potential release sites,’’ Staffon wrote league members. “It would be foolish to pull St. Louis County out of the project at this stage of the game. When the research has been completed and the results published, then all the facts will be available to make a good decision on where to re-establish elk.
Elk were native to eastern Minnesota forests until they were wiped out by European settlers in the late 1800s.