Elk survey shows slight population increase

Minnesota’s elk range in northwestern Minnesota has three herds with a total of 97 elk, according to the annual aerial elk population survey completed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Kittson, Marshall and Roseau counties. 

Past surveys recorded 79 elk in 2017 and 83 elk in 2016.

“People often are surprised to learn we have wild elk in Minnesota,” said Doug Franke, Thief River Falls area wildlife supervisor. “As biologists, our annual elk surveys are one way we collect information we can use to manage these large and often elusive animals.”

Year-to-year, the survey results vary depending on the movement of the Caribou-Vita herd that travels back and forth across the Minnesota-Manitoba border. Meanwhile, the smaller Grygla herd in Marshall County remains at low numbers.

“We continue to be concerned about low numbers of elk in the Grygla herd, which has not been hunted since 2012 and remains below our population goal,” Franke said.

In Marshall County, observers counted 15 elk in the Grygla herd, down from the 17 elk counted last year and 21 elk in 2016. The current population goal range for the Grygla elk herd is 30 to 38 animals.

Another elk herd, the Kittson-Central herd, is located near Lancaster in Kittson County. Observers counted 75 elk compared to 61 elk in 2017 and 52 elk in 2016. The current population goal range for this herd is 50 to 60 animals.

Aerial surveys are a snapshot in time, meaning they are only an estimate of the population, not an exact number. The DNR counts elk only on the Minnesota side during its aerial surveys.

Border herd results
This year, the DNR was again able to conduct a joint aerial elk survey with Manitoba Conservation for the Caribou-Vita elk herd, also known as the border herd. The survey was completed on March 11 and March 12 for the areas close to the border. Manitoba Conservation wildlife staff counted 80 elk near the border, down from the 108 elk counted last year. There were 46 elk counted slightly north of Vita, Manitoba, which is down from the 55 elk counted there last year.

Observers counted a total of 126 elk on the Canadian side of the border, down from the 163 total elk counted last year. The Caribou-Vita herd is Minnesota’s largest herd, with a current population goal range of 150 to 200 elk inhabiting both sides of the border.

Depending on the year and day of the survey, elk numbers on the Minnesota side can greatly vary. Observers in Minnesota counted only seven elk this year in the Caribou-Vita herd. One elk was counted in 2017 and 10 animals were counted in 2016 in the state.

Research continues
In 2016, the DNR radio-collared 20 cow elk in Minnesota’s three herds to begin research into elk movements and habitat use that should help managers improve the effectiveness of elk population surveys, the knowledge of Minnesota elk biology and movements, and elk depredation management. The study is being conducted by researchers from the DNR and Minnesota State University-Mankato. It will run through June 2018.

This research project is the first of its kind in Minnesota. The 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.

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

More information on Minnesota’s elk management can be found at mndnr.gov/elk.