My first sighting of a live Minnesota elk was at least a quarter-century ago. This timeline is linked to the days when my hunting partner and I would bunk at his grandparents' home in Mahnomen, Minnesota, from where our adventures would take us to far-flung places; most often in pursuit of waterfowl. On this particular day we were driving a county road in the approaching dusk, when in the distance we saw a very large animal emerge from a ditch and cross perpendicular to the gravel road.
Jim and I have seen many deer, some of which we've harvested and it was clear this was not a whitetail. In that general area at that time were a small number of elk-also known as wapiti-the results of an effort by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to reintroduce elk to the state in 1935. This large member of the deer family had disappeared from Minnesota before 1900 as settlement expanded, unfenced lands dwindled and animals were aggressively harvested. Today there is still a small remnant population of elk from that reintroduction that persists in the Northwest corner of the state.
The relevance at this time is the fact that tentative steps are being taken that could lead to a new effort aimed at reintroducing elk to Minnesota, this time in several areas in the East-Central part of the state, on lands north, south and west of Duluth. Feasibility studies to determine the suitability of habitat to support an elk population, and to gauge landowner support or opposition, are underway. Involved are the University of Minnesota, the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The bulk of the funding for the feasibility studies-just under $450,000-came from the state's Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
The Minnesota DNR is not reported to be actively involved in the project. Its supporters are quoted in media accounts as recognizing that determining feasibility is only stage one. Others in decision-making positions will have to weigh in, including-those behind the effort say-state lawmakers. Up to this point I've not seen opinions expressed by the Minnesota DNR, which generally would-and should-have a seat at the table in such discussions, since managing big game in Minnesota falls under their area of responsibility.
In their revelation of positive landowner and public response to the survey, supporters of elk reintroduction have pointed out the difference in landscapes between the locus of the elk population in Northwest Minnesota, and that envisioned for the East-Central area now in focus. There has been conflict between elk and farmers in the Northwest, due to the elk's inclination to consume crops or forage intended for cattle in that largely agricultural area. The three areas in East-Central Minnesota, on the other hand, include more public land and a balance more leaning toward forest and less toward agriculture. This may account for less expressed landowner anxiety over the introduction of elk there.
As the feasibility studies move forward, and the wheels of decision-making turn, a certain amount of caution should be part of any final decision. I'm not a trained biologist, having only a minor in natural resources on my college resume. But I do consider myself as well-informed on wildlife management and natural resource issues as the average Minnesota legislator, who may someday be in a position to vote up or down on the introduction of elk in this part of the state.
There have been game species introductions in the past that have been exceptionally successful. The Chinese ring-necked pheasant is a creature not originally found in the Western Hemisphere, but is now one of the most wildly successful and widely hunted game bird species. The wild turkey's reintroduction here in Minnesota is another good example.
But there are at least a couple of issues to be addressed when it comes to elk. One is competition with whitetail deer. The elk is first and foremost a grazer, meaning it is a consumer of grass and similar soft plants. The folks at Rocky Mountain National Park-one of our oldest national parks, established more than a century ago-say that an elk's eating is about 85 percent grazing and 15 percent browsing, which means to eat woody plant parts and leaves. Deer at the park are roughly the reverse in dietary preferences, at 75 percent browsing and 25 percent grazing. Deer are the better adapted to forest habitat, but the mix of mountain meadows and forest in the Rockies has suited elk, too, and they are abundant.
In winter, however, when the grasses and soft-tissue plants on which elk prefer to graze become less available, they become browsers of necessity and-so say the managers at Rocky Mountain National Park-compete with deer. It remains to be seen how the two species would interact in the mix of forest and open lands near Duluth, but it should not be ignored. If an elk population here would be little more than a novelty, and not sufficiently abundant to be a natural resource available to the public-and that is an unknown-is there justification for spending significant time and treasure to introduce them?
A second issue that should be addressed is the obvious one of bringing in big game animals from beyond our state's borders. It's not clear at this time where the elk would come from. The "elephant in the room" is chronic wasting disease the always-fatal, incurable disease of the deer family that the Minnesota DNR is struggling to contain in Southeast Minnesota. Elk are carriers of the disease, and captive elk on Minnesota game ranches have been found to have it.
Of course, it would be wild elk that would be captured elsewhere and released here. But what precautions could be taken to be sure they are not CWD carriers, as some are in the West? The only tests for CWD currently considered valid by the United States Department of Agriculture are tests performed post-mortem, on dead animals. There are efforts underway to perfect blood tests that would identify infected animals without harming them, but they are not yet approved.
The point here is not to prejudice anyone against a proposal to introduce elk to these parts of Minnesota. But introducing any species anywhere is a "playing God" exercise. There are a goodly number of wildlife introduction success stories in the history of game management. But there are also some disasters, and some resource-wasting failures, too. This is a case where all the possible outcomes have to be considered, with key decisions made by resource professionals, moving forward with eyes wide open.