The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have agreed to work together on a formal proposal to reintroduce elk north of Hinckley on the eastern side of the state.
The two sides are far from making a decision, but the latest development assures that the idea that was first kicked around in 2014 continues to advance. In a matter of months, there should be a draft proposal available for public review and comment, said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the band.
"Nobody has a plan yet to put elk on the landscape, but it's another step," Schrage said.
Barb Keller, who leads the DNR's big game program, said the agency is going along and working to get more details on what a restoration of wild elk would look like in three potential target areas.
"We haven't said, 'Yes, we're doing this,'?" Keller said.
But Schrage and Keller both said it's possible that Minnesota would use the state's existing herds of wild elk in northwestern Minnesota as the source of animals to re-establish an eastern elk range. There's an overabundance of wild elk in central Kittson County, prompting the DNR to expand hunting this year. Friday is the deadline to apply for those permits.
"It's something to consider, for sure," Keller said of the idea to capture elk and transfer them.
Schrage said a key step forward for the project arrived earlier this year when the Fond du Lac tribal council voted to keep exploring the idea. The nod followed studies by the University of Minnesota that showed suitable habitat and solid public support for a return of elk in three study areas. Elk lived extensively across Minnesota until settlers cleared land and hunted them to near-extinction by the early 1900s.
One of the new study areas, dubbed Cloquet Valley, is northwest of Duluth. A second area known as the Fond du Lac study area is west of Duluth and the Nemadji study area is just north of Hinckley, along the Wisconsin border. The three areas are comprised mostly of public land, ample food resources and low road densities.
Of the three sites, Cloquet Valley is the largest with 680 square miles. The university habitat study concluded that the area could support at least 335 elk and as many as 550. In general, Minnesota's proposed new sites were judged to be similar in biological carrying capacity as reintroduced elk ranges in Michigan and in Wisconsin's Black River area.