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Elk surveys mailed to 8,500 homes as Fond du Lac Band effort inches toward reintroduction

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has mailed 8,500 surveys to residents of eastern Minnesota to measure public opinion on the band's proposal to reintroduce wild elk to the region. St. Paul Pioneer Press file photo1 / 2
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CLOQUET, Minn.—The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has mailed out 8,500 public opinion surveys to residents in the areas of eastern Minnesota under consideration for reintroduction of wild elk.

The surveys went to most rural landowners in and near the three potential elk reintroduction areas and to a random selection of city dwellers in southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine counties.

The surveys are part of the band's long-range study to see if an elk reintroduction is possible, practical and popular.

"We're already getting some back. And we will be sending out reminders to people," said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band, who has been guiding the elk effort.

Meanwhile, researchers will be back in the woods this summer studying potential elk habitat, including what's available as forage for the big critters to eat. Last summer scientists focused on public land habitat. This summer they'll move to private land.

The goal, if elk are reintroduced, is that they will stay mostly on public, forested lands and avoid potential trouble on agricultural or other private lands.

So far researchers are finding plenty of places elk would thrive. But the unknown aspect of any reintroduction plan is public support. The seven-page opinion survey, the product of University of Minnesota social research experts, is aimed at measuring public opinion on the possibility of elk reintroduction.

"We expect to have about 50 percent response rate," said Professor David Fulton of the University of Minnesota's Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology.

Fulton said survey results should be tabulated by August.

Elk were native and common across much of east-central Minnesota before European settlers arrived, but they have been gone from the landscape for 120 years. Fond du Lac Band wildlife officials say they are now in about their fourth year of what will be at least a 10-year effort to bring the big animals back.

Wildlife and forest resource managers have homed in on three potential elk reintroduction areas: the Cloquet Valley, Nemadji-St.Croix and Fond du Lac state forests. The three areas comprise mostly county, state and tribal forest lands with some potential Superior National Forest land in the far north, as well as parcels of private land throughout.

About 80 miles to the east, Wisconsin's Clam Lake elk herd in southern Ashland County, reintroduced 20 years ago, has done a good job at staying out of trouble, so much so that the state is bringing more elk into the area. But that hasn't been the case in northwestern Minnesota, where two Minnesota elk herds have wandered into farmers' fields and damaged crops, spurring state lawmakers to limit any expansion of elk in that area.

The elk restoration studies are funded by a joint state and tribal effort. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton in 2016 signed the bill that allocated $300,000 for the effort from the state's lottery profits in the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation added $15,000, with $32,000 from the Fond du Lac Band.

The final report is due to the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources in June 2019. Schrage said it may cost another $1 million to actually bring elk to the region, if that happens. More than 200 animals likely would be introduced over several years.

In addition to Wisconsin, several other eastern states have reintroduced wild elk herds, including Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky, Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee. None have reported any negative impact on deer. Wisconsin has been adding elk from Kentucky in recent years, and that's a likely source for Minnesota elk.

Elk are more able to withstand warmer weather than moose, which are dwindling as Minnesota's climate warms. Elk also are much less susceptible to a brainworm carried by deer that, while harmless to deer, is one of the big reasons Minnesota's moose population has plummeted in the past decade.