The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources appears willing to keep a plan moving forward to restore wild elk to eastern Minnesota.
DNR Commissioner Sarah Stromen, in a recent letter to Fond du Lac tribal officials, said the DNR “is prepared to discuss the next steps’’ of a potential elk reintroduction.
While it stops short of endorsing elk restoration or even pledging the state’s help — Strommen called the effort a complicated process with many steps — the letter is the first official sign from the state’s wildlife managers that they believe the effort is worth pursuing.
Strommen’s letter to Reginald DeFoe, director of Resource Management for the Fond du Lac Band, was responding to a March letter from band officials informing the state that the tribal council had voted to move forward toward elk reintroduction after both social and biological studies on the prospect came back overwhelmingly positive. As reported last month in the News Tribune, tribal officials invited the DNR to be a partner in the elk project.
Dave Olfelt, who heads the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division, said the state is easing in to what will likely be a long process toward elk reintroduction.
“It’s a commitment to talk,” Olfelt said of the agency’s response to the band.
“We view this as a collaborative process,’’ Olfelt added. “It’s their idea. But we’re going to have to work together.”
In the letter, Stromen said that acting DNR Wildlife Section Manager Mike Larson will be the DNR’s “primary point of contact on elk reintroduction.” Tribal wildlife officials expect to meet with Larson soon.
Elk, known in Ojibwe as "omashkooz," were native to much of Minnesota before being wiped out by European settlers as the state’s prairies and woods were transformed by intense farming and logging. The Fond du Lac Band is proposing restoring the big animals in southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine counties. The focus is on the Nemadji, Fond du Lac and Cloquet Valley state forests, mostly within the 1854 treaty area where the band has federally-guaranteed hunting, fishing and gathering rights.
The five-person Reservation Business Committee, also called the Tribal Council, the reservation’s elected government, made the decision to pursue elk reintroduction at a meeting in early March.
“The RBC believes restoring the wild elk population to areas where band members retain their historic treaty rights is in the Band’s best interests. In addition to restoring part of the Band’s culture, elk are a native species all Minnesotans should be able to enjoy,’’ Fond du Lac officials said in a statement.
Despite tribal approval, many hurdles remain before elk are roaming in eastern Minnesota again. The effort needs backing from local and state political leaders. There’s also the matter of finding millions of dollars to pay for elk relocation from other states, or from northwestern Minnesota, into the area. Results from other states indicate it would likely take dozens of elk transplanted over several years for an eastern Minnesota herd to become self-sustaining.
Mike Schrage, a wildlife biologist for Fond du Lac, said that development of a formal elk management plan — where, how and how many elk should be allowed and how they will be managed once here — is critical before elk arrive. He said the management plan will include state, tribal and local officials as well as public input.
Another major step will be finding a disease-free source of elk to move here. Interstate movement of elk, deer and other cervids has become a critical issue in the expansion of chronic wasting disease across the country and officials say any source herd for elk will have to be free from CWD.
Underway since 2014, the Fond du Lac elk restoration project included comprehensive University of Minnesota studies of both habitat availability and public opinion. Both studies concluded in 2018 finding that elk restoration was both biologically feasible and also very popular with local residents and landowners.