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Strong northern Minn. public support for bringing elk back

A public opinion survey on the prospect of restoring wild, free-roaming elk to eastern Minnesota forests found strong support among both the general public and landowners in the potential elk release areas.

DULUTH — The prospect of restoring elk to eastern Minnesota forests has strong, across-the-board public support in the region, according to a survey by University of Minnesota researchers.

The survey found that 77 percent of the general public in southern St. Louis, Carlton and northern Pine counties supports the reintroduction of elk in the region.

The survey also found a whopping 79 percent of landowners in the potential elk restoration area supports the idea.

The opinion surveys are part of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's long-range study to see if an elk reintroduction is possible, practical and popular, said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band, who has been guiding the elk effort. If the concept was wildly unpopular it likely would be dead in the water.

But, in fact, the opposite appears true. Between 66 and 73 percent of landowners said they would even support free-ranging elk wandering onto their own land.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Schrage said. “But I’m very pleased with the results.”

Researchers mailed out 8,500 public opinion surveys in March. They were returned over the summer and tabulated this fall. They went to most rural landowners in and near the three potential elk reintroduction areas and to a random selection of city dwellers in the region.

Researchers had been hoping to get a 50 percent rate of return on the seven-page surveys. That’s what they got from the general public, but nearly 68 percent of landowners completed the survey and mailed it in.

“We assumed that the issue would be of more interest to landowners than perhaps many in the general public who might be living in towns and cities without direct contact to rural land,’’ said David Fulton, University of Minnesota professor who oversaw the opinion survey. “The proportion of landowners who engage in hunting and other outdoor activities also tends to be higher than among the general public. With all that said, the response rate among landowners was 10 percent or so higher than I expected based on recent survey attempts. I do think the high response rate indicates the level of interest in elk among landowners in the area.”

Wildlife and forest resource managers have focused on three potential areas — the Cloquet Valley, Nemadji-St. Croix and Fond du Lac state forests. The three areas are comprised mostly of county, state and tribal forest lands with some potential Superior National Forest land in the far north, as well as parcels of private land throughout.

Among landowners, 82 percent of those in the Nemadji State Forest area supported elk restoration with 81 percent in the Cloquet Valley State Forest area and 74 percent in the Fond du Lac State Forest area.

Among the general public surveyed who don’t own rural land, 77 percent of southern St. Louis County residents outside Duluth supported elk restoration, with 75 percent of Duluthians backing the idea, 68 percent in Carlton County and 74 percent in northern Pine County.

The surveys, depending on the geographic area, are said to have between a 2 and 5 percent margin of error.

The surveys coincided with two seasons of field work where wildlife and forestry experts scoured the woods in the potential elk restoration area to see what habitat is available for the big animals, on both public and private land. The goal, if elk are reintroduced, is that they will stay mostly on public, forested lands and avoid potential trouble on agricultural or other private lands.

Elk were native and common across much of east-central Minnesota before European settlers arrived, but they have been gone from the landscape for 120 years. The News Tribune first reported on the Fond du Lac elk effort in 2014, and band wildlife officials say they are now in about their fifth year of what will be at least a 10-year effort to bring the big animals back.

“We still need to dig into the weeds of the opinion survey, and finish up parts of the habitat work … finish some mapping,’’ Schrage said. “The next step will be to report to the state and tribal officials next spring. It’s another step forward.”

Schrage said any additional steps toward elk reintroduction would need approval from state and tribal governing bodies. He said any plans to transfer and manage elk in the region could still be years away, especially considering how much money it will take.

“This remains a feasibility study. But, at some point, if this continues to progress, we’ll have to go to various governmental bodies and ask for a political decision to restore elk,” Schrage said. “Nobody has made any decision yet to put elk anywhere.”

About 80 miles to the east, Wisconsin's Clam Lake elk herd in southern Ashland County, reintroduced 20 years ago, has done a good job at staying out of trouble, so much so that the state has brought more elk into the area where the state’s first ever regulated elk hunt was held this autumn. That hasn't been the case in northwestern Minnesota, where two Minnesota elk herds have often wandered into farmers' fields and damaged crops, spurring state lawmakers to limit any expansion of elk in that area.

The new survey results suggest elk won’t have that public relations problem if restored in eastern Minnesota.

“I’m not surprised that landowners here are far more accepting of the idea of elk on the landscape than farmers in northwestern Minnesota. Most of the landowners in this area own their land for recreation or timber production, not for crop farming,’’ Schrage said. “And what agriculture we do have here, beef cattle and hay, is a lot less susceptible to elk problems than the grain or corn farms they have in northwestern Minnesota.”

The elk restoration studies were funded by a joint state and tribal effort. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton in 2016 signed the bill that allocated $300,000 for the effort from the state's lottery profits in the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation added $15,000, with $32,000 from the Fond du Lac Band.

The final report is due to the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources in June 2019. Schrage said it may take millions of dollars more to actually move any elk into the area — if that happens — likely 200-300 animals introduced over several years.

“Kentucky and Arizona are two states that are offering elk right now, but it would probably take five or six years to get that many animals here,’’ Schrage said.

In addition to Wisconsin, several other eastern states have reintroduced wild elk herds — including Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky, Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee — and none have reported any negative impact on deer.

Elk are more able to withstand warmer weather than moose, which are dwindling as Minnesota's climate warms, fostering more disease and more parasites. Elk also are much less susceptible to a brainworm carried by deer that, while harmless to deer, is one of the big reasons Minnesota's moose population has plummeted in the past decade.

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