DULUTH, Minn. — Despite overwhelming public support for reintroducing wild elk to eastern Minnesota, and despite ample science that shows the forest habitat for elk here looks good, the St. Louis County Board appears ready to formally oppose the idea on its home turf.
The County Board is expected to vote 4-3 on Tuesday, Nov. 26, for a resolution requesting that the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa remove the Cloquet Valley State Forest in southern St. Louis County from consideration as a possible elk reintroduction area.
The Cloquet Valley State Forest is one of three areas studied for a possible elk reintroduction, along with the Fond du Lac State Forest in Carlton County and the Nemadji State Forest in southern Carlton and northern Pine counties.
Elk were native to much of Minnesota but were extirpated from the state in the late 1800s due to farming, logging and unregulated hunting.
The County Board technically can’t stop the elk project because it has no jurisdiction over wildlife in Minnesota. Elk would be the purview of the state and tribal wildlife agencies. But the county’s opposition could raise political concerns. The County Board meets at 9:30 a.m. in the Arrowhead Town Hall in Brookston.
The ordinance passed its first test at the board's committee-of-the-whole meeting on Nov. 12 by a 4-2 vote. It is proposed by Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township who has fomented opposition to the elk plan, saying the big animals pose a threat to livestock, crops and even human safety. Elk can carry diseases known to impact cattle. They also in some areas have trampled row crops like corn and beans. And they are big enough to cause major issues if struck by a car.
Nelson has pointed to vehement opposition to more elk in Northwestern Minnesota where some farmers are critical of a small wild herd that has been allowed to wander in the area since the 1930s, often trampling farm fields.
"I have spent the better part of a year studying this and, folks, to romanticize having elk in my backyard, I would love to," Nelson said during an Aug. 6 meeting when the resolution was first discussed. "But when you look at the realities of it and this nation proposing it to be put back into our tax-forfeited lands, it just does not make good common sense."
But elk supporters say those concerns are overblown. Elk brought in from other areas can be tested, quarantined and certified as free from bovine tuberculosis and other cow diseases. There are almost no major areas of row crops in or near the Cloquet Valley State Forest as there are in Northwestern Minnesota. And hitting an elk along U.S. Highway 53 would be no more dangerous than hitting a moose, bear or a stray cow.
Several farmers attended the board's Oct. 22 meeting in the McDavitt Town Hall where opposition to the elk reintroduction was expressed. But a public opinion project by University of Minnesota researchers — with 8,500 surveys mailed across the region — found that 80% of landowners in the potential elk restoration area in the Cloquet Valley State Forest, including farmers, support reintroducing elk in the area.
The survey also found 77% of the general public in southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine counties supports the reintroduction of elk in the region.
The opinion surveys were part of the Fond du Lac Band's long-range study — underway since 2014 — to see if an elk reintroduction is possible, practical and popular, said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the Band. Schrage has been guiding the elk effort. If the concept was wildly unpopular, he noted, it likely would be dead in the water.
But, in fact, the opposite appears true. Between 66% and 73% of landowners — including farmers — said they not only support the idea of elk in the area but would even support free-ranging elk wandering onto their own land.
“The survey results seem to show something far different than what we are hearing’’ from Nelson and supporters of the resolution, said Schrage.
The University of Minnesota public opinion surveys coincided with two seasons of field work where wildlife and forestry experts scoured the woods in the potential elk restoration area to see what habitat is available for the big animals, both on public and 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. As expected, university scientists found plenty of suitable food to keep elk happy in the woods in all three of the possible release areas.
“Even if we took Cloquet (state forest) out of the picture, the other two sites are well suited to support elk and have strong public support,’’ Schrage said, adding that the elk may move on their own into the Cloquet Forest area.
Elk supporters point to the success of the northern Wisconsin elk reintroduction effort, just 80 miles east of the proposed Minnesota project, where the idea is strongly supported by local residents. Wisconsin's northern elk population has grown steadily since the release of 25 Michigan elk in 1995 near the town of Clam Lake in southern Ashland County. Some 48 additional Kentucky elk were released this year, joining 31 released in 2017, giving the area about 275 wild elk today. The goal is a herd of about 1,400 elk in that area.
Both the Carlton and Pine county boards remain on record in support of the elk project, at least for now.
Elk idea on hold anyhow
Regardless of any St. Louis County Board action, prospects of any elk reintroduction in eastern Minnesota are on hold pending action by decision-making governmental bodies, Schrage said. He’s waiting for the Fond du Lac Tribal Council to discuss the issue, possibly in December or January, and potentially decide whether to keep moving forward toward reintroduction.
Without tribal council support the elk project will be shelved, Schrage said. Fond du Lac Tribal Chairman Kevin Dupuis did not return a request to comment on the issue.
Schrage also said the state of Minnesota needs eventually to take some sort of stand on the elk reintroduction, either the governor’s office or the Department of Natural Resources.
“Ultimately, it’s a tribal issue. But we need partners and we need the state on board in some form if this is going to happen,’’ Schrage said.
Barb Keller, big-game program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said agency fish and wildlife officials still are discussing the elk study results. The DNR supported the study to look at habitat and public opinion. Keller said, but has taken no stand for or against any actual elk reintroduction. While the agency supports the concept of reintroducing extirpated species, she said the agency has to weigh the potential of future elk-human and elk-animal conflicts, including diseases such as chronic wasting disease.
The rapid spread of CWD in recent years "has certainly put a damper'' on reintroduction of deer, elk or other cervids, she noted.
CWD an issue
Concerns over chronic wasting disease — the always fatal disease that kills deer, elk and moose — also have been raised. Because there's no way to test for CWD until an animal is dead, it’s impossible to guarantee that live elk moved into the region would be free from CWD.
“That’s a legitimate concern as we see this disease move around the country. We can of course be careful to pick an area to get elk from that has no history of CWD. We can manage that risk and be relatively certain they don’t carry the disease. But we can never be 100 percent certain,’’ Schrage said.
Move Northwestern Minnesota elk east?
Schrage had previously talked about procuring elk from far away regions, as did Wisconsin. But he now says the most simple plan would be to move elk from Northwestern Minnesota to eastern Minnesota. Those elk are not well-liked by landowners and, instead of a limited hunting season, several animals could be moved relatively cheaply the short distance east for several years running.
Schrage earlier had suggested multiple 80- to 100-elk releases in the region, each year for several years, to start a strong herd here. If the elk came from Northwestern Minnesota that would probably be reduced to 20-25 per year for several years.
The DNRs Keller said the idea of moving elk within Minnesota "has been on our radar'' but not discussed at length.
“It avoids a lot of issues if we could get the elk from within the same state. ... But a lot has to happen now before we even get to that point,’’ Schrage said. “At this point we’re on hold until some decisions are made.”