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Best elk restoration sites identified in Carlton, St. Louis and Pine counties

Wildlife and forestry experts have identified three areas likely to support a wild elk reintroduction effort in eastern Minnesota. 2002 News Tribune file photo.

Three areas of eastern Minnesota have been identified as likely locations for an elk restoration effort by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Wildlife and forest resource managers have honed-in on the Cloquet Valley, Nemadji-St.Croix and Fond du Lac state forests — as far north as the Whiteface Reservoir area, as far west as state Highway 73 and as far south as the St. Croix River.

The elk restoration plan has focused on Carlton, southern St. Louis and northern Pine counties and the three specific areas "were identified as having the best conditions for supporting elk someday,'' Mike Schrage, Fond du Lac biologist, said Wednesday.

The three areas range from 290 square miles to 670 square miles each. They are comprised mostly of county, state and tribal forest lands with some potential Superior National Forest land in the far north, as well as parcels of private land throughout.

"We worked to identify and encompass areas with few major roads, little agriculture, lots of public land and forest land where timber harvest is a priority land use,'' Schrage said.

Habitat experts will now scour those areas to see if the forests have the right vegetation to support the region's first elk herd in more than a century. The areas also will be the focal points for a human attitudes study to see if people will accept elk back in the area.

If the Nemadji-St. Croix area is picked, Schrage said supporters will also have to work with Wisconsin officials, noting the eastern border would be along the state line. Wisconsin has a successful elk herd about 90 miles to the east in southern Ashland County.

Schrage said the eastern Minnesota elk project also got a boost from the recently completed 2017 Minnesota Legislature which changed language that would have prevented any new elk herd in the state. The language from 2016 was aimed at curtailing Minnesota's northwestern elk herd which has become unpopular with some farmers in the area. But the 2016 language wasn't specific "and would have precluded our effort from ever seeing any elk on the ground,'' Schrage said. "It's a big step to get that out of the way."

As first reported by the News Tribune in 2014, Fond du Lac wants to bring back the big animal once important to the Ojibwe people that has been absent from the region for more than a century.

The effort received a big boost from the 2016 state Legislature with a $300,000 grant from the state's Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund along with $32,000 from the Fond du Lac Band and $15,000 from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

In addition to studying habitat, the grant also is being used to develop a public opinion survey that will be randomly mailed to residents who live around the three potential elk areas, including the Cloquet and Duluth areas. That study is being conducted by the University of Minnesota and should be in the mail by late summer.

Because elk have a history of adapting well to many kinds of habitat, but also have a history of roaming where they aren't always welcome, it's the public acceptance aspect that's expected to be the most challenging. Supporters say they will need buy-in from landowners, farmers, deer hunters and others before bringing elk into the region from another state or Canada.

The Minnesota DNR and county officials from St. Louis, Pine and Carlton counties already have given their backing for the study to move forward, as have local hunting and conservation groups.

Fond du Lac tribal leaders want to see the elk restored within the 1837 and/or 1854 treaty areas that cover much of eastern Minnesota where the band has court-sanctioned rights for hunting, fishing and gathering as well as natural resource management.

Elk were native to the area, much more so than white-tailed deer, until the elk were hunted out by the late 1800s as European immigrants settled the area. Before that, the Ojibwe had a history with elk as much as with deer, moose and caribou, band officials say.

The eastern Minnesota elk project now has a website at elk.umn.edu and a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/NE.MN.elk/.

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