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DNR completes northwest elk survey

For the second straight year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will not be recommending an elk season this fall near Grygla, Minn., because of a continued decline in the area’s elk herd.

According to John Williams, northwest regional wildlife supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, this year’s aerial midwinter count tallied 20 elk, down from 28 last year.

The DNR’s management goal for the Grygla herd calls for a pre-calving population of 30 to 38 elk.

“That is now considerably below goal,” Williams said. “It’s like any population; if they’re out of the survey area, we could have missed them, but all things we’ve seen, both flights and anecdotally, we’re not hearing other places where elk might be at this time, and the best information we’ve got is the survey data we’ve flown.”

By comparison, surveys tallied the Grygla herd at 40 elk in 2010, 53 in 2009 and 55 in 2008, which means the herd has dwindled to less than half of what it was six years ago. The DNR also has expanded the survey area to the north and west the past two years.

The Grygla survey covers 133 square miles.

“We’re below goal now, and if we’re below goal, we’re not intending to have a hunting season,” Williams said. “We do not understand what happened to those elk.”

The DNR offered the first elk season near Grygla in 1987, with subsequent hunts from 1996 through 1998 and 2004 through 2012.

Kittson County herd

Northwest Minnesota’s other elk population, in Kittson County, is comprised of two herds: The Kittson Central herd near Lancaster, Minn., and an international herd known as the Caribou-Vita Subgroup, which ranges between Caribou Township in northeast Kittson County and Vita, Man., in Canada.

This year’s aerial survey counted 37 elk near Lancaster and the surrounding area, down slightly from 45 last winter. The DNR’s elk management plan for the Kittson Central herd calls for a pre-calving population of 20 to 30 elk, Williams said, not including the Caribou-Vita subgroup, but there’s growing interest by some people in the county to expand the herd.

The Caribou-Vita herd has been estimated at 120 to 150 elk on both sides of the border. The DNR survey tallied 51 elk on the Minnesota side of the border this winter, Williams said, up from 17 last year.

“That’s about as many as we’ve had on the U.S. side of the border,” he said.

The DNR issued 23 elk tags in Kittson County last year, and hunters killed 12 elk — six bulls and six cows — 10 elk in the Kittson Central zone and two bulls near Caribou, including a 6x7 bull that scored 393 2/8 inches Boone and Crockett, making it the highest-scoring elk ever taken by hunting in Minnesota.

The Kittson Central elk herd remains above management goals.

 “Obviously, the effort we’ve had the last several years of moving that population toward goal are paying off to the degree we’re getting down toward that number,” Williams said.

As part of the midwinter elk survey, a fixed-wing aircraft initially flies the route to get a general location on the elk; the DNR then follows up with a helicopter, which can fly lower and slower to get a better count of what’s on the ground, Williams said.

Doug Franke, area wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Thief River Falls, counted the elk in all three survey areas.

“This is an unusual survey in as much as we try to count every animal out there,” Williams said. “Most of our population censuses, we try to get an estimate. We count a certain area, expand it and come up with an estimate.”

The Lancaster survey area covers 166 square miles, and the Caribou-Vita survey is limited to 24 square miles. Snow conditions were good for the survey, which was flown in late January and early February.

DNR seeks nominees for elk work groups

About 50 people attended a meeting Thursday night in Greenbush, Minn., to get an update from several officials, including Williams, on the status of elk near Grygla and in Kittson County.

With the existing elk management plans set to expire next year, Williams on Thursday night said the DNR is seeking nominations for people to serve on two citizen work groups to help the DNR draft new plans for the Kittson County and Grygla elk herds.

Until the elk plans are revised, the DNR is committed to the population goals outlined in the documents, Williams said.

If Thursday night’s meeting is any indication, the proponents of growing the Kittson County elk herd are going to face plenty of resistance from cattle producers and farmers who have had problems with the animals raiding crops and feed supplies.

While no one at the meeting spoke up in favor of more elk, two producers said they’re tired of the depredation problems the animals have caused. There also was sentiment that cattle producers should have a larger presence in the working groups because they have to live with the problems the elk cause.

Williams said the working groups will consist of 10 to 15 people with the goal of including a cross-section of local interests in the process. People now serving on each of the two committees will have to reapply if they’re interested in working on the new elk plan, he said.

The deadline for nominations or applications to the working groups is March 31, and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr will select committee members in mid-April. All nominees, including those not selected, will be notified by that time, Williams said.

Nominations should be submitted to Rita Albrecht, DNR northwest region planner, at; or by calling (218) 308-2660. Nominations should include name of the nominee, complete contact information including electronic and street addresses, a preferred phone number and reason for the nomination.

No alternates will be selected.

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Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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