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Bill has $4 million for Fond du Lac elk transplant to Northeastern Minnesota

The plan is to move northwestern elk to Carlton and southern St. Louis counties.

A bull elk runs through the woods
A bull elk runs through the woods in northwestern Minnesota, part of a potential source herd for an elk reintroduction in eastern Minnesota.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR

ST. PAUL — The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa would get $4 million from the state of Minnesota to plan for and then move wild elk from northwestern Minnesota into Carlton and St. Louis counties under a bill heard Tuesday in a Minnesota House committee.

The bill, HF 1423, would transfer the money through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which has been working with band biologists to form the plan to capture, test and move the elk to the Fond du Lac State Forest and the Fond du Lac Reservation, about 30 miles west of Duluth.

Alicia Kozlowsk
Alicia Kozlowski

The bill was introduced by Rep. Alicia Kozlowski, DFL-Duluth, who has roots in both the Grand Portage and Fond du Lac bands.

The bill requires that the band’s “elk reintroduction efforts must undergo thorough planning with the Department of Natural Resources to develop necessary capture and handling protocols, including protocols related to cervid disease management, and to produce post-release state and tribal elk co-management plans.”

The bill was laid over to be included in a broader omnibus natural resource bill. An identical bill, SF1573, has been introduced in the state Senate.


Kevin Dupuis, Fond du Lac tribal chairman, said the reintroduction would restore a culturally and environmentally significant animal to the eastern Minnesota landscape for his people.

“But it’s not just for the Anishinaabe people, it’s for everyone to enjoy,” Dupuis told the committee.

A similar bill last year authorized $500,000 for the elk project but died in last-minute political squabbling, along with nearly every natural resource bill. This year Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers appear poised to fast-track natural resource projects such as the elk plan and don’t need Republican votes to pass them.

Fond du Lac Band wildlife managers have been working on the project since 2014 and, in recent months, Minnesota DNR wildlife officials have been meeting with and helping Fond du Lac biologists fine-tune the elk plan.

Elk restoration area.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Under the proposal, the band would start transplanting elk into northern Carlton County and southern St. Louis County in 2025, with animals taken from Kittson County in northwestern Minnesota, where the wild herd, and the DNR, have come under fire from farmers who say the big animals wander onto their fields and damage their crops. Supporters of the Fond du Lac Band plan note there is very little row-crop farming in the proposed relocation area.

The restoration plan calls for moving up to 150 elk into the area over three to five years, with a long-term goal of about 300 elk roaming parts of the Fond du Lac Reservation and much of the Fond du Lac State Forest, a combined area of about 296 square miles of mostly forested, mostly public lands. (The band had previously looked at also bringing elk back to the nearby Cloquet River Valley State Forest and Nemadji State Forest, but has decided to drop those areas and focus on the Fond du Lac Reservation area for now.)

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Mike Schrage, Fond du Lac biologist who has headed the elk project for nine years, said the $4 million, if approved, could cover much of the cost of the effort.

“Neither myself or the DNR have had a chance to sit down yet and develop good cost estimates for the different aspects of the project,’’ Schrage told the News Tribune, adding that expenses may include:


  • Stepped up and ongoing chronic wasting disease surveillance at both the restoration site on and around the Fond du Lac Reservation and in northwestern Minnesota around existing elk herds, with a goal of reaching a high degree of confidence the disease does not exist in either location.
  • Public and local government outreach and education to inform and refine DNR and tribal elk planning and subsequent elk management.
  • Construction and annual maintenance for two elk holding facilities — one located on existing elk range for initial handling and health screening and a second pre-release acclimation facility at Fond du Lac. Depending on location, this could include some necessary road access construction and/or upgrading.
  • Capture costs, likely using private contractors and helicopters, for 100-150 elk over 3-5 years plus associated agency staff travel costs during periods of capture and handling.
  • Trucking costs to transport elk from northwest to northeast Minnesota.
  • Purchase of satellite tracking collars for each released elk so we know where they go and what happens to them. That alone would cost about $2,500 per animal.
  •  Purchase and distribution of signage and other education materials to alert local public to the presence of elk.
  • Targeted habitat work around the release location to help hold elk near the release site.
    A plan is in the works to restore wild, free-roaming elk to parts of east-central and Northeastern Minnesota for the first time since they were extirpated from the region 125 years ago.

The project has been one of the most studied wild animal restoration efforts in the state. Habitat studies conducted by University of Minnesota researchers in 2017 and 2018 showed plenty of wild food for elk to eat. And a major public opinion study in 2019 by University of Minnesota researchers found strong support for elk among the general public and among rural landowners across the region.
Known as omashkooz in Ojibwe , elk were important to the diet and culture of Native Americans across much of Minnesota — including eastern Minnesota — until the animals were hunted out by European settlers by the 1870s.

About 90 miles east of the proposed Fond du Lac elk reintroduction area, Wisconsin successfully reintroduced elk into southern Ashland County in the 1990s. There's now a self-sustaining wild population of about 300 elk around the Clam Lake area where limited hunting seasons have been held the past five years.

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John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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