A northwest Minnesota lawmaker concedes he might not be popular with elk proponents for legislation that limits the Department of Natural Resources in its ability to expand elk herds in the state but says the concerns of Kittson County ag producers who long have battled elk problems had to come first.
The DNR, meanwhile, says it plans to continue working with producers facing elk damage in an effort to alleviate the problems.
State Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, introduced legislation this past session preventing the DNR from increasing elk population goals until the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which handles depredation claims, can show crop and fence damages from elk haven’t increased for at least two years.
The bill’s language eventually was incorporated into the ag policy bill Gov. Mark Dayton signed Tuesday.
The legislation, which took effect Wednesday, doesn’t sit well with people who favor more elk on the landscape, but that’s the reality until the DNR shows it can strike a balance between larger herds and fewer ag complaints.
“I understand the people like the elk — I get that,” Fabian told the Herald. “I’m an elk hunter and applied for a tag. But at some point, we have to act on the concerns of the people.”
Paul Telander, wildlife section chief for the DNR in St. Paul, said the agency had concerns about Fabian’s legislation because it says the DNR shall not manage elk in a manner to increase the size of the herd — but doesn’t lay out the baseline for what that herd size should be.
“It’s a little bit confusing, but we’ll manage as best we can to meet the intent of the language,” Telander said. “We’ll continue to work with producers and provide more opportunities for them to have input on food plot location on public and private lands, habitat management efforts, and technical and material assistance for preventing elk damage.
“We’ll work with producers and even try to strengthen those relationships as we move forward.”
The legislation comes on the heels of a 2009 plan for managing northwest Minnesota’s three elk herds that expired at the end of 2015.
In an effort to draft a new plan, the DNR in 2014 convened two work groups to formulate a replacement addressing not only population goals, but efforts to mitigate the damage elk can cause to crops and livestock feed through fencing, food plots and other habitat initiatives.
The work groups — one for the Grygla, Minn., elk herd and the other for Kittson County’s two elk populations — included hunters, business owners, livestock producers and other stakeholders, in addition to DNR staff.
With input from the working groups, the DNR last fall released the draft of a new five-year plan for managing elk that included increasing the population goal for the Kittson Central herd near Lancaster, Minn., from a pre-calving population range of 20 to 30 elk — the goal in the previous plan — to a range of 60 to 75 elk.
Population goals for the Grygla herd and the Caribou-Vita “international” herd in northeast Kittson County were unchanged at 30 to 38 and 150 to 200, respectively. The Caribou-Vita herd ranges between Minnesota and Manitoba and is jointly managed by the two jurisdictions.
John Williams, northwest regional wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, said the draft basically was an update to the previous plan except for the increased goal for the Kittson Central herd, which resulted from an interest among some residents for more elk.
The DNR as required offered public input opportunities that included meetings in Lancaster and Grygla, but critics of expanding the elk herd felt the new plan didn’t do a good enough job of addressing depredation problems.
In response, Williams said, the DNR dropped the goal for the Kittson Central herd to a range of 50 to 60 elk, a number it didn’t make public while awaiting the Legislature’s action.
Fabian says the DNR needs to show it can manage for more elk without increasing complaints from crop and livestock producers. He said depredation complaints in Kittson County actually increased under the old management plan, and elk numbers in the Lancaster herd increased to 52 based on the DNR’s February survey.
That’s a frustration, he said; so is the ongoing damage. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the state has paid out $40,506.90 in damages on nine elk claims this year in Kittson County. In 2014, the state paid out $44,761.77 on 12 claims in the county and last year, Kittson County producers filed eight claims for $35,007.86.
“I would like to reduce the conflict between landowners and the elk herd,” Fabian said. “That’s the whole reason behind what I am doing, and I have a sincere desire to help these folks out.”
Mike Larson of Baudette, Minn., an avid elk hunter who served on the Kittson County work group, said the elk provide opportunities for ecotourism in addition to bringing hunters into the area for the limited number of elk tags available every year.
The DNR last year offered seven licenses in Kittson County — more than 1,400 people applied — and five hunters filled their tags. The area is gaining a reputation for trophy elk, as evidenced by a bull that died in December 2010 after stumbling over a fence and getting its antlers mired in the mud. The big bull’s rack measured 458 4/8 inches, ranking it No. 4 in the world based on the Boone and Crockett scoring system.
Bull elk nearly as impressive have been taken during subsequent hunting seasons.
“I’ve never seen that out in the wild,” Larson said. “There are some awesome critters.”
Larson said he thinks people would travel to see the elk if the DNR had a website with up-to-date information on the animals’ whereabouts.
“Lake Bronson State Park is right there, and they could have a tour, and I’m sure people would go,” Larson said.
The Pine to Prairie Birding Trail also includes stops in Kittson County, Larson said.
Bob Lessard, a retired Minnesota state senator who spent 14 of his 26 years in the Legislature serving on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said he’s disappointed by the legislation.
Now a special assistant to DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, Lessard was upset enough to reach out and express his frustration as a private citizen and legislator who worked on establishing elk herds in the state since 1970.
“This is not the DNR talking — it’s me,” Lessard, 85, told the Herald. “To do something like this with no input, even from some of the people that want elk over there — not to mention the rest of the state — is unconscionable. I’ve been trying to get elk over there since I was a state senator. It’s an invaluable resource.”
Lessard said it’s up to sportsmen to step up and challenge the legislation if they support more elk in the state.
“I want to turn it into a sportsmen’s issue,” he said. “The issue is the sportsmen of the state have to speak up, and if we don’t, we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves.
“If anybody wants to come after me, bring it on. I don’t care. I’m 85 for crying out loud. One luxury of getting old, you don’t have much of a future and you can say things out loud. The sportsmen of this state, they should be outraged.”
Up to the DNR
In the end, Fabian says, it’s up to the DNR to show it can reduce the elk problems that persisted during the previous management plan.
“I understand there are people out there who have a passion for increasing the number of elk in Minnesota,” Fabian said. “But listen, as an elected official, you have to find a balance, and in this case, I’m siding with the people in eastern Kittson County who are frustrated with the DNR and the DNR’s unwillingness to abide by the previous elk management plan.”
Fabian said he’s “more than willing” to work with the DNR to mend fences with Kittson County landowners, but higher-ups from the agency’s St. Paul office need to visit northwest Minnesota and prove they’re committed to the habitat work necessary to increase elk numbers without ag conflicts.
So far, that hasn’t happened — not to his satisfaction, at least.
“I’m not opposed to the elk,” Fabian said. “I just want the DNR to follow through and live up to what they say they’re going to do in their management plan.”
Telander, the DNR’s wildlife chief, says he’s well aware of the issues in northwest Minnesota. He spent 21 years as manager of Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area near Middle River, Minn., before becoming northwest regional supervisor in 2005.
Telander moved to St. Paul and became wildlife chief late in 2012.
“I know a lot of the people, and I know the elk range areas quite well,” Telander said. “We have a good field staff working hard to make things work on elk issues, but if there’s a need for me to go to northwest Minnesota, I’m happy to do that.”
Telander said an elk study that began this winter will help managers learn more about elk movements and habitat use. In the meantime, because the previous plan expired Dec. 31, the new “baseline” population for the Kittson Central elk herd most likely is 52, the number tallied during this past winter’s aerial survey.
Fabian says the DNR has to keep the number in check.
“That takes us full circle back to what has caused all these issues,” Fabian said. “If (52) is the baseline, that’s what they have to keep.”