Elk survey a mixed bag for northwest Minnesota herds

BEMIDJI, Minn. — Elk populations near Lancaster, Minn., in Kittson County continue to thrive, while a herd near Grygla, Minn., again shows troubling signs of decline, the Department of Natural Resources said this week in reporting results of its annual winter aerial elk survey in northwest Minnesota.

According to John Williams, northwest region wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, the survey tallied 75 elk in the Kittson Central herd near Lancaster, up from 61 last year and above the management goal of 50 to 60.

The Grygla herd declined to 15 elk, down from 17 in 2017 and barely half the management goal range of 30 to 38 elk.

Farther north, the DNR tallied seven elk on the U.S. side of the border for the so-called "Border Herd," which ranges between Minnesota and Manitoba near Caribou in northeast Kittson County and Vita, Man., on the Canadian side of the line.

Manitoba wildlife officials flying the same day as the DNR on March 11 counted 126 elk on the Canadian side of the border, down from 163 last year. The DNR last year counted only one elk on the Minnesota side of the border the day of the survey.

The disparity in elk numbers between Minnesota and Manitoba isn't unusual or surprising, said Doug Franke, area wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Thief River Falls. Franke does the counting for the northwest Minnesota survey, flying in a fixed-wing airplane with a DNR pilot.

Anecdotal reports from landowners, along with tracking data from elk with radio-collars on both sides of the border, put the bulk of the herd in Manitoba, Franke said. Manitoba wildlife officials counted 80 elk along their side of the border and another 46 farther north and west near the town of Vita.

The border elk routinely range between Minnesota and Manitoba, Franke said. As a result, it's crucial for the two wildlife agencies to conduct the survey the same day.

"We didn't expect to see too many elk in Minnesota, and sure enough, we didn't," Franke said. "They were spending most of the time during the day in Manitoba.

"These elk literally move back and forth overnight."

There could be several reasons for the decline in the Caribou-Vita herd, Franke said. First Nations people in Canada have rights to subsistence hunt, and there's no way to tally the extent of that harvest, he said.

It's also possible elk strayed beyond the boundaries of the survey block.

"We do know elk move multiple miles, but for the most part, it's a fairly accurate assessment from one year to the next," Franke said.

Snow is essential to counting elk from the air, and conditions throughout all of the survey blocks were fair to good, Franke said.

Grygla concern

While elk numbers near Lancaster are above management goals, the decline in the Grygla herd is especially troubling, Williams said. For whatever reason, a population that once was too abundant has trended the other direction in recent years since being reduced to a level closer to DNR management goals.

The DNR hasn't offered an elk season near Grygla since 2012.

"The Grygla herd is very much a concern," Williams said. "For me, it's a long stretch of history reaching over 100 years that kind of is at risk here.

"Once it reached goal, it should have been a maintenance population. We have found that not to be so."

The survey results put the total population at 97 in Minnesota's elk range, up from 79 last year and 83 in 2016. That's not a particular meaningful number, though, because the surveys tally three distinct elk herds.

The DNR will be working to bring the Lancaster herd more in line with management goals, Williams said. Season dates and harvest quotas will be available later this spring.

By Brad Dokken

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