The Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa is researching the possibility of restoring elk to its lands in what is today Minnesota.

Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Explores Elk Restoration

Douglas Thompson
3/11/15

Before European settlement, there were thousands of omashkoozoog (elk) in what is now the state of Minnesota. Unfortunately, overhunting and habitat loss associated with colonization decimated the population. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is taking first steps to reverse this loss by evaluating the potential for bringing elk back to its reservation, as well as to portions of the 1837 and 1854 Treaty ceded territories in northeastern Minnesota.

The Fond du Lac Reservation Business Council has passed a resolution in which it determined that restoring a wild elk population is in the best interests of the band, and Fond du Lac’s Chairwoman, Karen Diver has highlighted the idea in her state of the Band report each of the past two years.

As a result, the band, in conjunction with the University of Minnesota, is submitting a grant proposal for approximately $337,000 to the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources to evaluate the restoration of elk to this part of its former range. If restored, it would be the first time elk would freely roam this region in over a century.

Funding through the commission, which draws from a combination of state lottery proceeds and investment income, would help pay for two parallel studies by the University of Minnesota. The first would explore whether the region has adequate habitat to support an elk population. The second study would evaluate whether residents in this region support the restoration of elk.

A driving reason behind this research is resilience. According to Mike Schrage, the wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band, elk are generalists, capable of thriving in many habitat types. This makes elk more likely than moose, for example, to be successful in the face of a warming climate. Some ecologists project that the advance of climate change will cause Minnesota’s great north woods to be transformed into open savannas like those found further to the south, a landscape well suited for elk.

Schrage maintains that the Fond du Lac Band is not giving up on moose. However, with the uncertainties surrounding the decline of Minnesota’s moose population, whitetail deer may ultimately be the only large ungulate left roaming this region. This would leave unthinkable ecological and cultural gaps in this part of Indian country, with moose being a historic thread in the ecological fabric of the north woods, a significant food staple, and an important part of tribal hunting heritage. Restoration of elk could help fill these gaps.

RELATED: Minnesota Tribes Collaborate to Save State’s Disappearing Moose Population

When evaluating habitat suitability, biologists consider two things—quantity and quality. The 1837 and 1854 ceded territories appear to have both of these ingredients. An animal that can move great distances, elk need lots of space, something this region does not lack. Carlton County alone, which is in the heart of the area being considered for potential restoration, has approximately 180,000 acres of public land, according to Greg Bernu, the county’s land commissioner.

As for habitat type, elk prefer open brush lands and grasslands for foraging, and forested areas for winter and security cover. The presence of an active forest products industry in northeastern Minnesota helps in this regard. Intensive forest management here results in a relatively young forest, which according to Bernu, provides ideal elk habitat while also supporting the local economy.

While available habitat appears to be favorable, social acceptance may be challenging. According to Rich Staffon, a retired state wildlife manager for the area being considered for elk restoration, the elephant in the room is potential conflict with agriculture.

Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Natural Resource Management DivisionConflict surrounding an elk population found in Minnesota’s far northwestern corner provides a painful illustration of this point. In the early 20th century, a small number of elk were released on failed farmland in this region. The herd quickly grew, and as these abandoned lands grew back into forest, the elk moved into areas with still-active farms and caused crop damage, to the consternation of local farmers. Meanwhile a larger herd of Manitoba elk joined the fray after dispersing south into Minnesota. Though this nomadic northern herd was not as troublesome as its southern brethren, the animals still were not welcomed with open arms by the farming community. According to Staffon, this has led to the northwestern herd being managed at a very low population threshold to reduce tensions, and the state is required to compensate landowners for damage caused by the animals.

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