A St. Louis County commissioner withdrew a proposal Tuesday that would have thrown up opposition to bringing an elk herd to Northeastern Minnesota.
But in delivering the news, Keith Nelson was adamant the county educate residents about elk herds prior to making further commitments to locating a herd in the Cloquet Valley State Forest.
“I have spent the better part of a year studying this and, folks, to romanticize having elk in my backyard, I would love to,” Nelson told the county’s Committee of the Whole on Tuesday. “But when you look at the realities of it and this nation proposing it to be put back into our tax-forfeited lands, it just does not make good common sense.”
Nelson cited a number of reasons for the county to proceed cautiously when it comes to stocking an elk herd — including conflicts with farming and highway safety, opposition from hunters and other groups, and the potential for transmission of disease.
The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and University of Minnesota are part of a feasibility study assessing public support and possible habitats in Northeastern Minnesota.
Fond du Lac wildlife biologist Mike Schrage presented to commissioners about the study — the results of which are expected to be released in September. Schrage urged commissioners to withhold judgment prior to reading the feasibility study.
“Our preliminary results indicate widespread interest and even excitement for the idea among landowners and residents across every strata we sampled,” Schrage said, noting that more than 80 percent of landowners near and around the Cloquet Valley study area north of Duluth supported the idea of having wild, free-ranging elk.
In addition to Cloquet Valley, the study is looking at the Fond du Lac Reservation (and overlapping Fond du Lac State Forest) and Nemadji State Forest as potential habitats.
“No decisions have been made yet by any organization whether or not to proceed beyond the feasibility phase,” Schrage said, outlining years of additional steps that would precede the introduction of a herd.
Nelson questioned the university’s study methodology, saying to conduct the study before educating residents was “remiss.” Nelson said the county would be better off conducting its own study, but only after a public information campaign.
“I want our land department and environmental services department to not just stand on the sidelines, but actually and actively educate people in St. Louis County about the ramifications (of elk),” Nelson said.
Nelson told of his visits to Kittson County in the northwestern corner of the state.
Farmers reported repeated incidents of damage to farm fences, and told of crops and hay pilfered by the herd.
Nelson cautioned against trusting the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to partner in an effort to manage an elk herd. He offered statistics to show a herd near the town of Lancaster nearly doubled in size beyond what residents were told to expect.
“Does the DNR manage the herd?” Nelson said. “If history is an indicator, then, no, they do not.”
Nelson said no herd will adhere to the artificial boundaries of mankind. The herd inevitably goes where it wants to go, he said.
“Chronic wasting disease scares the heck out of me,” Nelson said, previewing possible future County Board measures by saying he plans to call for a ban on future deer herds in the form of commercial deer farms. He added that he plans to propose requiring existing deer farms to build a redundant fence around their structures to prevent captive deer from coming in contact with native deer. Physical contact has been identified as risk behavior in transmitting CWD.
Other commissioners expressed being eager to read the upcoming results of the feasibility study on elk.
Nelson saved a scolding shot for county administration. Pine and Carlton counties both saw their commissioners approve inclusion into the ongoing elk restoration study. But St. Louis County’s Land Department signed off on its county’s inclusion. The notion rankled Nelson, who represents the 5th District in the south-central part of the county, from Virginia and Mountain Iron south to Fredenberg Township.
“Here in St. Louis County we make the decision at the department level,” Nelson said, shaking his head. “That’s just not acceptable to me as commissioner.”