The yearslong effort to return wild elk to parts of eastern Minnesota is advancing with a formal proposal from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Under the plan, Fond du Lac would start transplanting elk into northern Carlton County and southern St. Louis County in 2025, at first with animals taken from a wild herd in Kittson County in northwestern Minnesota.

“This is our formal proposal to bring elk back to the region,” said Mike Schrage, biologist for the Fond du Lac Band. “This is a proposal on what to do and how to do it. But we’re still going to be taking input from the public and government agencies on how we manage elk once they’re here. … We’re putting it out there for the Minnesota DNR and for the public to tell us what you think.”

Eventually the band calls for moving up to 150 elk into the area over 3-5 years with an eventual goal of a sustainable population of about 300 elk roaming parts of the Fond du Lac Reservation and much of the Fond du Lac State Forest— a combined area of about 296 square miles of mostly forested, mostly public lands.

Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com
Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com

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The band proposes any elk moved into the area should first be required to undergo appropriate health screenings and then monitored post-release to evaluate movements, mortality and any areas of conflict. While no live animal test as yet exists for chronic wasting disease, band officials say it's critical the elk come from an area believed to be free of the deadly disease that ravages deer, elk, caribou and moose.

The band had previously looked at also bringing elk back to the nearby Cloquet River Valley State Forest and Nemadji State Forest but has decided to drop those areas and focus on the Fond du Lac area.

“In our view, the Fond du Lac study area rose to the top as the best place to do this,” Schrage said, adding that the band may in the future pursue other areas if the first restoration is considered successful.

Band officials say they want a strong partnership with state and local officials and the public to bring elk back to the region.

PREVIOUSLY:

Dave Olflet, director of the Minnesota DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division, said the agency received the Fond du Lac proposal late last week. Biologists from the band and DNR have been discussing the concept since a more general proposal by Fond du Lac more than a year ago.

“This is their formal ask,” Olfelt noted. “And we will get back to them in a timely manner.”

The band has been studying the concept of elk reintroduction since 2014, with habitat studies in 2017 and 2018 showing plenty of wild food for elk to eat. A major public opinion study in 2019 by University of Minnesota researchers found strong support for elk among the general public and among rural landowners in the area.

Those findings buoyed the band’s resolve to move forward.

"The band's Reservation Business Committee believes restoring a wild elk population to areas where band members retain their historic treaty rights is in the band's best interest," said Kevin Dupuis Sr., Fond du Lac tribal chairman, in a statement released Tuesday. "Elk have historically been, and continue to be, an intrinsic part of our culture and traditions."

A bull elk photographed in South Dakota's Black Hills. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has submitted a formal plan to transplant elk from northwestern Minnesota into the Fond du Lac State Forest in northern Carlton and southern St. Louis counties, what would be the first wild elk in eastern Minnesota in nearly 150 years. (Photo courtesy of Mike Schrage)
A bull elk photographed in South Dakota's Black Hills. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has submitted a formal plan to transplant elk from northwestern Minnesota into the Fond du Lac State Forest in northern Carlton and southern St. Louis counties, what would be the first wild elk in eastern Minnesota in nearly 150 years. (Photo courtesy of Mike Schrage)

Known as omashkooz in Ojibwe, elk were important to the diet and culture of Native Americans across much of Minnesota until elk were hunted out by European settlers in the 1870s. Minnesota's only current wild elk population is in the far northwestern corner of the state.

About 80 miles east of the proposed Minnesota elk reintroduction area, Wisconsin successfully reintroduced elk into southern Ashland County in the 1990s. There's now a wild population of about 300 elk around the Clam Lake area. A second herd of about 100 elk roams in Jackson County in central Wisconsin.