Published February 15, 2010, 08:25 AM

Survey shows slight decline in Grygla elk herd

This year’s aerial elk survey near Grygla, Minn., tallied 40 elk, down from 53 last year and 55 in 2008.

By: Brad Dokken, Northland Outdoors

Elk numbers near Grygla, Minn., are down slightly, based on findings from a recent aerial survey, and the bulk of the herd has moved a few miles from its traditional wintering grounds.

According to Doug Franke, area wildlife manager for the Department of Natural Resources in Thief River Falls, this year’s survey tallied 40 elk, down from 53 last year and 55 in 2008. This year’s count consisted of 11 bulls and five calves, Franke said, and the remaining 24 elk were cows.

As part of the survey, a helicopter crew flew about 80 square miles in parts of six or seven townships north of Grygla. The survey route is the same every year, Franke said, but the DNR has switched from fixed-wing aircraft to helicopters because it enables the crew to fly lower and slower and get a more accurate count of what’s on the ground.

The DNR conducted the survey at the same time it was counting deer in the core area of a minor bovine tuberculosis outbreak near Skime, Minn.

Without getting too specific, Franke said the bulk of the herd has moved five to 10 miles southeast of its traditional wintering grounds. That’s not a big move for elk, Franke said, but it appears increased hunting pressure in the area may have shifted their patterns a bit.

Food availability is another factor, Franke said; the TB area north of Grygla now has more fenced hay yards and fewer cattle, a combination that likely has helped drive the herd elsewhere for food.

Franke said the elk now are in a natural sedge marsh, where they’re feeding on the green portions of the plants above the frozen ground.

“You could see from the air they had pawed quite a large area of natural food, which was nice to see,” Franke said. “Hopefully, they’ve found a spot where they can winter for a few more weeks. This period from late February into March is when all ungulates are tested because that’s generally when their fat reserves are starting to wane.”

Ungulate is the scientific term for a broad group of hoofed mammals that includes deer, moose, elk and cattle.

Franke said he also counted five elk that were a few miles outside the survey boundary. The area has held elk in the past, he said, but not during the winter.

The DNR, which offers an elk season whenever the herd exceeds 30, offered 15 tags in the Grygla area last fall, but only nine were filled during the three regular seasons. The DNR then offered an additional hunting opportunity in early January, and all six of the remaining tags were filled.

The DNR hasn’t yet flown the survey for elk herds in Kittson County. The plan is to coordinate the survey with Manitoba to get a more accurate count of the northern herd that moves back and forth across the border. Christine Reisz, assistant area wildlife manager for the DNR in Karlstad, Minn., said the tentative plan is to fly the survey in two weeks, depending on the weather and the ability to coordinate with Manitoba.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to