Elk used to roam the traditional territory of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in what is today Minnesota in herds like this one in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Minnesota Funds Elk Restoration Study for Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

Douglas Thompson

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa are one step closer to reintroducing elk on their traditional territory, thanks to $330,000 in state funding for a feasibility study.

The bill, signed into law by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton on May 31, will help the Fond du Lac evaluate whether elk can be restored in a portion of the animal’s historic range in eastern Minnesota. Another $15,000 each is being contributed by the Fond du Lac Band and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The Fond du Lac Band is seeking an additional $30,000 to supplement the effort even further, bringing the potential funding total to nearly $400,000.

Potential and current elk range on Fond du Lac territory. (Courtesy Fond du Lac Resource Management Division)

The feasibility study is a partnership between the Fond du Lac Band, the University of Minnesota and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and will focus on southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine Counties as potential restoration sites. The two-part study will first assess public attitudes toward elk, then determine where and how much potential elk habitat is available.

“We anticipate beginning work on the public attitudes part of the study sometime this winter, with the habitat portion of the work beginning next year,” said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac. “We are looking at a June 2019 completion date for the final report.”

The answers will determine whether there is enough potential elk habitat and enough public support to take further steps in the restoration process. The presence of an active forest products industry in the region would appear to provide ideal habitat for the animals, which prefer open brush lands, meadows and young forests for foraging.

While available habitat may be favorable, social acceptance could be far more important for a successful elk restoration. Conflict surrounding an elk population found in Minnesota’s far northwestern corner illustrates this point. There, complaints from farmers have prompted the state to develop a program to compensate landowners for damage caused by the animals, while managing the herd at a very low population threshold in an effort to mitigate conflict.

In response to these ongoing tensions over elk, Dayton signed another bill, also on May 31, requiring the state commissioner of agriculture to verify that there has been no increase in the amount paid for elk-related crop and fence damage during the previous two years, before the state allows the northwestern herd to grow. While this is aimed at Minnesota’s existing elk herds elsewhere in the state and thus does has no impact on the feasibility study, the way the bill is written could pose a challenge for restoration of an eastern Minnesota herd and will need to be addressed in future legislative sessions, Schrage said.

Courtesy Fond du Lac Resource Management Division

If restored, it would be the first time elk would freely roam portions of the 1837 and 1854 Ceded Territories of Minnesota in more than a century, Schrage noted. The exploration into the potential for restoration has been ongoing for more than a year.

RELATED: Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Explores Elk Restoration

“Restoration of this native species would be important culturally and ecologically,” said Schrage. “Over the long term, elk could provide an important food staple for tribal communities in the region and help them adapt to climate change. If our studies show that there is enough public support and suitable habitat to have elk here in eastern Minnesota, it’s still going to be a long road and a lot of work for elk restoration to be successful.”

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