Fond du Lac Band awaits response from governor on elk plan
Tribal officials haven’t received any formal response from the state.
The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has been waiting for seven months and still hasn’t received a formal response from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on the tribe’s plan to restore elk to eastern Minnesota.
Tribal officials sent the DNR a formal proposal in late June expecting the agency to review the plan and weigh in.
Agency officials said they would respond in a timely manner. But the DNR’s silence eventually moved the band to send a letter directly to Gov. Tim Walz in late December asking him to push his agency to act.
“We asked for the governor’s help in getting a response from DNR,” said Mike Schrage, a Fond du Lac wildlife biologist who has shepherded the elk restoration plan for the past eight years. “But we haven’t heard back from the governor’s office either. We followed up with an email this month, but still nothing.”
Schrage said it's puzzling why there has been no formal response from the state. DNR staff have been involved in the elk restoration conversation for years. DNR wildlife staff even commented on the draft proposal and suggested changes that were incorporated by the band into the final proposal.
“It’s not like this is new to them at all,” Schrage said.
Dave Olflet, director of the Minnesota DNR's division of Fish and Wildlife, said he spoke with Reginald DeFoe, the Fond du Lac Band’s director of Resource Management, on Tuesday. Olfelt said he’ll accept the blame for not communicating sooner or better with the band.
“They're frustrated. That’s my fault,” Olfelt said. “But director DeFoe and I have talked and we agreed our technical staffs should be talking on this. We’re going to get moving.”
Olfelt said a formal response letter will be forthcoming from the agency on the proposals. But he said it won’t be an either-or, yes-or-no response.
“This is not a trivial thing to move a population of ungulates from one part of the country to another, especially with the disease issues we’re faced with right now,” Olfelt said, referring especially to chronic wasting disease but also to bovine tuberculosis and others. “It’s going to take time to work through those. So we really don’t have a yes-or-no answer right now.”
Fond du Lac wildlife managers have been working on the elk effort since 2014. Under their proposal, Fond du Lac would start transplanting elk into northern Carlton County and southern St. Louis County in 2025, at first with animals taken from a wild herd in Kittson County in northwestern Minnesota.
No elk in the Kittson area have been confirmed to have CWD. The closest deer found to have CWD are at least 100 miles away from the Kittson County elk in Beltrami and Polk counties.
The band proposes any elk moved into the area should first be required to undergo appropriate health screenings and then monitored post-release to evaluate movements, mortality and any areas of conflict. While no live animal test as yet exists for chronic wasting disease — the University of Minnesota and others are working on them now — band officials say it's critical the elk come from an area believed to be free of the deadly disease that ravages deer, elk, caribou and moose.
Opposition to moving any wild deer-family animals during the current chronic wasting disease scourge is clearly one reason for the hangup. DNR officials and many conservation and hunting groups are on record as opposing any movement of farmed deer or elk in order to slow the spread of CWD. That may cause deer farmers to protest the movement of wild deer or elk as hypocritical.
“Disease is way out front on this issue. Animal damage (to crops) is another issue. … There aren’t as many farms in the Duluth area, the Fond du Lac area, as there are in northwestern Minnesota. But we have to deal with elk” causing damage to crops, Olfelt said. “Moving any cervids now, with CWD on the landscape, deserves a lot of thought first.”
The band’s restoration plan calls for eventually moving up to 150 elk into the area over three to five years, with a long-term goal of a sustainable population 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 about 30 miles west of Duluth.
The Fond du Lac elk restoration area is within the region of the state where Ojibwe bands are guaranteed hunting, fishing and gathering rights under a treaty signed with the U.S. government in 1854 and which courts have repeatedly upheld. The bands also have authority in how those natural resources are managed.
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 area for now.
Band officials say they want a strong partnership with state and local officials and the public to bring elk back to the region. Habitat studies conducted by University of Minnesota researchers in 2017 and 2018 showing 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 in the area.
Those findings buoyed the band's resolve to move forward.
Known as "omashkooz" in Ojibwe, elk were important to the diet and culture of Native Americans across much of Minnesota until the animals were hunted out by European settlers by the 1870s.
Minnesota's only current wild elk populations are small and limited to the far northwestern corner of the state. But about 80 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 four years. A second herd of about 100 elk roams in Jackson County in central Wisconsin.
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .