Elk survey results underscore importance of elk research

Fluctuations in the 2016 annual elk population survey illustrate one of the primary reasons wildlife researchers have begun placing GPS collars on elk in northwestern Minnesota and tracking their movements. 

seven bulls_govdeliveryThe Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ aerial survey counts elk in three herds in the state’s elk range. This year’s survey results show large population swings in two of the three herds that might be caused by elk traveling into and out of Canada – and across the survey boundary.

“These survey results underscore the importance of upcoming research into elk movements,” said John Williams, the DNR’s northwest region wildlife manager. “The aerial survey is a snapshot in time. Tracking elk movements over a longer time period will provide information that will make our elk survey more effective and allow us to better manage elk.”

In total, survey spotters counted 83 elk in the state’s elk range in Kittson, Marshall and Roseau counties, down from 131 in the 2015 survey.

In the Grygla herd in Marshall County, spotters counted 21 elk, up slightly from the 18 counted last year and 20 counted in 2014. The current population goal for the Grygla herd is 30-38.

“While the number of elk in the Grygla herd remains stable, its status is still of concern,” Williams said. “This herd hasn’t been hunted since 2012.”

In the Kittson-Central herd located near Lancaster in Kittson County, spotters counted 52 elk compared to 34 in 2015 and 37 in 2014. This year’s count remains above the current population goal of 20-30 animals.

In the Caribou-Vita herd (also known as the Cross Border herd or the International herd), spotters also counted 10 elk, down from 79 animals counted in 2015 and 51 in 2014. This is Minnesota’s largest herd, which migrates between northern Kittson County and Manitoba. The Caribou-Vita herd’s current population goal is 150-200 elk inhabiting both sides of the border.

“We continue to see the Cariobu-Vita herd regularly travel between Minnesota and Canada,” said Williams. “We know these animals move back and forth across the border daily, and perhaps intermix with the Kittson-Central herd.”

Elk study begins
The DNR’s recently begun research into elk movements and habitat use stands to help managers speed up and improve the effectiveness of the elk surveys, as well as improve knowledge of Minnesota elk biology and management of the species.

As part of the study that began Feb. 16, the DNR will collar approximately 20 adult female elk, some from each of the three herds.

“This research project is the first of its kind in Minnesota,” said Gino D’Angelo, DNR deer project leader. “Our goal is to improve understanding of the species and ultimately develop management programs that benefit elk and their habitat while also minimizing conflicts with landowners.”

The study is being conducted by researchers from the DNR and Minnesota State University-Mankato and will run through June 2018.

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) and approved by the state Legislature. The DNR and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation are also providing funding.

Elk are managed to maintain a free-ranging, wild population in far northwestern Minnesota. These herds afford recreational and economic opportunities, including wildlife watching and hunting seasons when their populations can sustain a hunt.

Current population goals for each herd were established in the 2009 elk management plan, which DNR developed with local landowner groups. The plan reflects a priority to increase landowner acceptance of elk.

The DNR is in the process of finalizing the 2016-2020 plan. A public input process was completed Jan. 22. The management plan will address population goals, landowner concerns about crop damage and opportuni¬ties to hunt and view elk.

For more information on Minnesota’s elk management, visit the elk page.