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Elk of Itasca, populated a century ago, now run free

Elk roaming free in northwestern Minnesota today are the result of a program at Itasca State Park to reintroduce the species to the state.

IT DNR REP 31-32 Elk.jpg
These elk came to Itasca State Park in the early 1900s through funding from the legislature aimed at restoring the elk population in northern Minnesota. Elk descended from this herd still live in northern Minnesota today. Contributed/Itasca State Park.
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PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- Elk were abundant before and during the early years of European settlement in Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says. Elk were protected from hunting in 1893, but even so were nearly extinct by the early 1900s.

From abundance to extinction

“The Mammals of Minnesota,” published in 1932 by Thaddeus Surber of the Minnesota Game and Fish Department and Dr. Thomas Roberts, director of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, tells how the American elk that once roamed the state in large numbers had entirely disappeared.

Often moving with buffalo, the elk’s range covered a large area extending from the Atlantic on the east to the Pacific on the west, north into western Canada and south to within a few hundred miles of the Gulf.

Elk were fairly numerous in southeastern Minnesota as late as 1841 when references in the Minnesota Historical Collections tell of a hunting party of Indians killing 50 or 60 elk that winter in the region that is now Dodge and Mower counties and nearby parts of Iowa.

The fall before, while returning across country from the same hunting ground to Fort Snelling, two herds of elk numbering at least 500 each were seen. Settlers reported that elk still lived along the west bank of the Mississippi below the Minnesota River as late as 1850 or 1860.

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Elk were also seen in the 1800s by settlers in Becker, Otter Tail, Grant, Pope, Stevens and adjacent counties. But by 1900, no evidence of elk could be found. An old hunter and guide in that region said that the last elk was seen in 1892 but another report said that a band of 16 elk was present for a brief period in 1896 in southeastern Roseau County.

In a letter from 1921 found in the files of the State Game and Fish Department, Stephen H. Withey of Crookston furnished the following information gathered from hunters and trappers: “The last Elk that was killed in Minnesota was in 1908; the last Elk seen in Minnesota was four years ago (1917), there were three of them seen about 18 miles southeast of Roosevelt in Beltrami County (now Lake of the Woods County).”

Shipping elk to Itasca

According to information from Itasca State Park, in 1913 the Minnesota Legislature set aside $5,000 for establishing a herd of elk in the park with the goal of reintroducing them into the wild.

The elk were placed on 700 acres located between the south arms of Lake Itasca enclosed with an 8-foot woven fence.

Three shipments brought 61 elk into Itasca’s enclosure. Fifteen elk came from Jackson, Wyoming, late in 1914 and 32 elk from north of Yellowstone Park early in 1915. In November of 1914, 14 elk were donated from James J. Hill from his North Oaks Farm in Ramsey County.

The trip was hard on the animals. Internal injuries during capture and shipment and possibly pneumonia were suspected as the cause of some of the deaths. Within one year only 13 elk remained. Local newspapers from January 1915 recount that elk were also being killed by wolves. A wolf hunt was held in the park but was mostly unsuccessful.

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By 1917, the herd had begun to increase and by 1921 the herd had grown to 40 elk and huskies were being used to transport hay to feed them during the winter months.

To make feeding easier a new enclosure was then constructed near the original park headquarters, which is today the Headwaters Inn, and the herd continued to thrive.

Released to the wild

In 1929, eight elk from Itasca were released in the Superior National Forest in the Stoney River District, but the habitat was not suitable for their survival. In 1935, 27 elk were shipped to the Beltrami Island Resettlement Project in an area known as the Red Lake Game Preserve after settlers, who were not able to farm the peaty lands there, were relocated. The cleared area was suitable for the elk, and the hope was that minimal crop damage and poaching would occur. Seven elk were kept at Itasca for exhibition purposes.

By 1937, the elk at the resettlement project had increased to about 40 animals and by 1940 there were approximately 100 elk.

The animals began to spread slowly westward, with a few animals near Bagley Lake about 12 miles northeast of Clearbrook.

“Though the animals have never returned to Itasca State Park, descendants of these animals continue on in northwestern Minnesota,” Itasca State Park naturalist Connie Cox said. “Today there are three small elk herds that are found within the state. One herd near Grygala, one near Lancaster known as the Kittson Central elk herd and the Caribou-Vita herd also in Kittson County. Recent research including radio collaring of 20 cow elk will help us understand the movement and habitat preferences of these large mammals. Ultimately help in developing management programs that benefit elk and their habitat while also minimizing conflicts with landowners. If you are camping near Lake Bronson this fall, you might hear the whistling bugle of the bull elk as he sings his love song to his harem.”

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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