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DNR to fly elk surveys in northwest Minnesota

The surveys are typically conducted each year during the winter, weather permitting, and should be completed in about 2 weeks.

MNDNR elk 2.jpg
A herd of elk moves through a patch of woods in northwest Minnesota in this undated photo. The Department of Natural Resources is planning to conduct its 2023 aerial elk survey during the second week of January across northwest Minnesota.
Contributed/Minnesota DNR

ST. PAUL – The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will conduct aerial elk surveys beginning this week – the second week of January – the agency said Monday. DNR staff will survey the Kittson County and Grygla elk herds in northwestern Minnesota and the border elk herd in the Caribou Township area in Minnesota and across the border near Vita, Manitoba.

The surveys are typically conducted each year during the winter, weather permitting.

The DNR uses aerial survey information to monitor elk populations and help guide decisions about future elk management and harvest regulations. There are currently three recognized elk herds in northwest Minnesota: Grygla, Kittson Central and Kittson Northeast, which is also referred to as the Caribou-Vita or border herd, because the animals range between Minnesota and Manitoba.

“We have sufficient snow cover now to start our elk surveys,” said Doug Franke, acting assistant regional wildlife manager and elk survey coordinator. “We anticipate the surveys will be completed in about two weeks.”

The DNR offered 28 elk tags – eight either-sex and 20 antlerless-only – in Zone 20, and 15 hunters filled their tags for an overall success rate of 54%. By comparison, the overall success rate last year in Zone 20 was 82%.

DNR pilots will fly surveys during daylight hours at an altitude of approximately 200 to 300 feet.


The DNR survey last winter tallied 84 elk – 33 bulls and 51 antlerless – in the central Kittson County survey area near Lancaster, Minn. That compared with 16 bulls and 45 antlerless elk in 2017, 18 bulls and 57 antlerless elk in 2018, 33 bulls and 61 antlerless elk in 2019 and 33 bulls and 69 antlerless elk in 2020.

Under state law, the DNR must try to manage the Kittson County herd with a population goal of 50 to 60 elk. The DNR did not fly an elk survey in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The DNR did not survey the Caribou-Vita herd last year because Manitoba didn’t fly its portion of the survey. Traditionally, the DNR coordinates with Manitoba to survey the Caribou-Vita herd because elk numbers on each side of the border can vary significantly from one day to the next. This year, however, the DNR is flying the Manitoba portion of the survey, as well, Franke said.

The last survey of the border herd was conducted in 2018, Franke said. That year, the DNR counted seven elk on the U.S. side of the border while the Manitoba crew tallied 126 elk in Canada, down from 163 in 2017.

“Manitoba has struggled to get funding to survey this small population the last few years, and we really wanted a better picture of how the herd is doing. So we went ahead and funded surveying in Manitoba this year, as well,” Franke said. “I don't foresee this being a routine event, though.”

Meanwhile, the Grygla herd the past several years has lagged below DNR management goals, which call for a pre-calving population of about 35 elk. The DNR tallied 29 elk – 14 bulls and 15 antlerless – in 2022, which was higher than any of the previous four surveys.

Report elk sightings

With this year’s surveys about to begin, the DNR is asking for help from those who have recently seen elk in their area. People are encouraged to contact their local DNR office with sighting information:

  • Karlstad area wildlife office, (218) 436-2427.
  • Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area, (218) 633-7671.
  • Thief River Falls area wildlife office, (218) 219-8587.

People can also document observations using the elk sightings tool on the DNR website ( mndnr.gov/elk/elk-sightings.html ).


“Thank you to everyone who has reported elk sightings to us,” Franke said. “These reports provide an important supplement to data from our aerial surveys and help us better understand elk movement and distribution in Minnesota.”

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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