The phrase “once-in-a-lifetime” gets used frequently to describe adventures in the outdoors, but when it comes to hunting elk in Minnesota, it’s not hyperbole.

Hunters who beat the odds and are drawn in the lottery for elk are no longer allowed to apply. A person needs to get lucky. John Williams, the Northwest Regional Wildlife Manager with the DNR, said it’s not uncommon to see 1,500 to 2,500 applicants for what has generally been well under 40 tags. But for those who do draw, success rates tend to be pretty good.

“The way things typically go, the earlier seasons are very successful in terms of harvesting elk,” Williams said. “The later seasons are a little bit more difficult. The elk have learned where they can be at where they’re a little less accessible to hunters or have altered their behavior to where they’re not as vulnerable. Overall, we’re typically breaking that 50% percent success-rate mark.”

A rare opportunity

The fact that Minnesota has a huntable herd of elk is likely unknown by some in the southern and central regions, but the DNR is handing out more tags than almost ever in 2020.

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“The season that we’re having this year in modern times is unprecedented for the number of tags we’re offering,” Williams said. “The ability to hunt in Minnesota and take an elk is an adventure in itself. It’s not going out to the Rocky Mountains with a pack horse or working on some high vista that you’re camping on every day. But it is unique.”

A group of three bulls take off during the DNR's winter survey work. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)
A group of three bulls take off during the DNR's winter survey work. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)

The DNR will offer 44 elk licenses this year. That’s up from 27 a year ago, and the seasons also allow more options for hunters to apply for, across dates that range from late August through mid-December. Hunts are not bow or rifle specific, but most choose to hunt with a rifle.

Elk historically had a range across almost all of Minnesota, with the exception of the coniferous forest of the northeast. The popular big-game animal received protection from hunting in Minnesota in 1893, but by the early 1900s, settlement and hunting had pushed Minnesota’s elk population toward extinction.

An effort to relocate 27 elk from a captive herd in Itasca State Park to northwest Beltrami County near Grygla eventually led to a breeding population. It was not until the 1980s that elk thought to be native to Manitoba crossed the Canadian border into Kittson and Roseau counties. Today, there are three recognized elk herds in northwestern Minnesota — the Grygla, Kittson Central and Caribou-Vita herds.

The DNR sets a population-goal range for each of the three herds based on a balance of the general public’s desire to see more elk in Minnesota and local landowner and farmer tolerance.

A winter survey estimated the Grygla herd at 24 elk, up from 19 a year ago, but still below the management goal of 30-38. A hunting season near Grygla will not be offered.

The Caribou-Vita herd, which ranges between northeast Kittson County and Manitoba, was last surveyed in 2018 with an elk count of 133. That’s below Manitoba’s management goal of 150, so the Minnesota DNR will offer just two bull-only tags for the Caribou-Vita herd.

Kittson Central herd well above goal ranges

The reason for the statewide uptick in licenses being available is the number of elk in the Kittson Central herd near Lancaster.

The DNR manages that herd toward a population goal of 50-60 elk. The recent winter survey counted 102 elk, up from 94 in the 2019 survey and 75 in 2018.

The DNR is allowing hunters to choose from three options when they apply to harvest elk this year: a license for a bull elk; a license for an antlerless elk, which can be a female or a young male; or a license for either a bull or antlerless elk. This will up the odds for those who are willing to take an antlerless elk at a time when the DNR is trying to get the Kittson Central herd back toward its goal range of 50-60.

“That’s one of the reasons we made that different this year because most people do want to shoot a bull,” Williams said. “Oftentimes, if they’re drawn and would get an antlerless tag, they’ll turn it down and keep their name in the hat for a bull for next year.”

Getting hunters to take cows is important from a management standpoint for the DNR, but Williams knows big bulls are what draws a lot of hunters to the idea of elk hunting. Minnesota has opportunities for those types of animals.

“We’ve got world-class elk up there,” Williams said. “The size of some of the bulls that are taken are absolutely trophy size in anyone’s category. We’ve got a good set of genetics up there.”

Where to find them

Williams said there are no shortcuts when it comes to filling a tag on a Minnesota elk.

“The key is you get up there and you’re scouting,” he said. “If you’re drawn, you should take that as a job to get up there, scout around for the elk, talk to landowners in the elk range. You can see where the zones are on the internet on the maps.”

A map of the Minnesota elk zones in the northwestern portion of the state near the Canadian border. (Courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)
A map of the Minnesota elk zones in the northwestern portion of the state near the Canadian border. (Courtesy of the Minnesota DNR)

The terrain of northwestern Minnesota tends to be flat. Wetlands and brushlands are interspersed with aspens and some agriculture.

Hunters have taken elk on both public and private lands up there. The Beaches Lake Wildlife Management Area totals more than 28,000 acres east of Lancaster.

There are public-land opportunities as a place to start. Williams said there are also landowners who often want to see hunters be successful.

“They have a self interest in allowing hunters on the land to help keep the elk in that herd in check,” he said. “If you talk to them and are presenting yourself to be a reasonable and responsible hunter, I think you have a good chance of getting permission. At least I’ve seen that in the past.”

Drawing an elk license in Minnesota isn’t easy, and tagging one shouldn’t be expected to be easy either. It might take knocking on doors and hours of scouting. But for those looking for a once-in-a-lifetime hunt in their home state, it will likely be worth it if it comes together.

“You will have to do your homework,” Williams said. “The more you put in it, the more successful you’ll be.”

Season and license information

Hunters must select the type of elk license they are applying for between bull-only (two licenses available), either-sex (18 licenses available) or antlerless only (24 licenses available), in addition to the zone and season. Hunters may apply individually or in parties of two online through the DNR’s Elk Hunting website or by telephone at (888) 665-4236. There is a nonrefundable application fee of $5 per hunter. Total cost of a license for selected applicants is $288. The deadline to apply is June 12.

Dates for the 2020 Minnesota elk season:

  • Aug. 22 to Aug. 30: Four antlerless tags and three either-sex tags will be available in the Kittson central (Zone 20) zone.

  • Sept. 5 to Sept. 13: Four antlerless tags and three either-sex tags will be available in the Kittson central (Zone 20) zone and two bull-only tags will be available in the Kittson northeast (Zone 30) zone.

  • Sept. 19 to Sept. 27: Four antlerless tags and three either-sex tags will be available in the Kittson central (Zone 20).

  • Oct. 3 to Oct. 11: Four antlerless tags and three either-sex tags will be available in the Kittson central (Zone 20).

  • Oct. 24 to Nov. 1: Four antlerless tags and three either-sex tags will be available in the Kittson central (Zone 20).

  • Dec. 5 to Dec. 13: Four antlerless tags and three either-sex tags will be available in the Kittson central (Zone 20).