Surprisingly few Minnesotans know that giant bull elk adorned with impossibly large antlers gather each September during the annual rut throughout secluded areas of the far northwestern corner of Minnesota. Their roaring vocalizations, or “bugling/bugles” as the calls are commonly known as, echo across large expanses of aspen and grassland habitats common to this region of the state. Indeed, wild and free-ranging native elk exist in Minnesota.
Aside from white-tailed deer, no other ungulate, no other member of the deer family, is better suited than elk are to the prairie grassland and aspen parkland habitats such as what is found in abundance in northwestern Minnesota. With a public land base of tens of thousands of acres that are managed specifically for open landscape dependent species of wildlife, including elk, elk are thriving, most notably in Kittson County where two separate populations of elk occur.
One population of Minnesota’s elk, numbering in the thirties and known as the Kittson Central herd, is a population located near the City of Lancaster. Another Kittson County elk herd, the Caribou-Vita herd, which is named after Caribou, Minnesota and Vita, Manitoba (the areas that this sub-group of elk reside), is a larger herd that crosses freely between Manitoba and Minnesota. Last spring’s aerial survey revealed 79 elk on the Minnesota side of the International border. The total population of the Caribou-Vita elk herd is routinely estimated between 120-150 animals (including animals on the Manitoba side).
The third population of elk in Minnesota is a small group of animals near the City of Grygla in Marshall County. These elk, known as the Grygla herd, have been declining in numbers in recent years despite not being hunted since the fall of 2012. Last spring’s aerial survey counted only 18 elk in the Grygla herd.
To be honest, I have never observed the elusive and majestic elk while standing solidly on the ground in Minnesota. I have enjoyed observing many Minnesota elk while conducting aerial surveys from inside the confines of airplanes and helicopters, but I haven’t enjoyed the privilege of an encounter with one of Minnesota’s greatest big game animals face-to-face — yet.
But what I do vividly remember is the first time I did meet “wapiti”, the Indian name given to this extraordinary animal.
It was 1990 while hunting elk in the Cabinet Mountain Range of far western Montana — an extremely rugged mountain range tucked within the Rocky Mountains. I had just spent half the day climbing the thickly forested northern aspect of the mountain amongst tall lodge pole pine trees and Douglas firs as well as some fifteen other coniferous trees that shielded the sunlight from the forest floor.
From my departure from Camp of the green wooded valley, to the time that I had reached an elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level and deep snow, game was scarce and tracks were few; that is, until I caught the glimpse of something I had never seen before but was looking for.
In fact, for a split second I didn’t know what I was looking at: I watched a dark form suddenly move through the shadows of the tall green pines like the wind; I followed the form from right to left, some 50 to 75 yards distant, cover yardage effortlessly and silently; and I watched as I suddenly realized that the pronounced beams and tines of polished antlers were the head gear of an enormous bull elk leaving me in his wake as I stood knee deep in snow slack-jawed and awestruck. I never even shouldered my rifle.
Aside from the habitat and the miles between, elk of Minnesota are not much different than their Rocky Mountain relatives. Cut from same cloth and genes, our elk are believed to be the subspecies Cervus elaphus canadensis, or eastern subspecies. Other known subspecies of elk include C.e. manitobensis, a prairie subspecies of elk from Manitoba, which is also believed to have once occurred in Minnesota, and maybe still do given the Caribou-Vita herd’s origin. Moreover, a little over 100 years ago when the Minnesota state legislature appropriated $5,000 to reestablish elk in parts of Minnesota, the elk obtained came from Rocky Mountain stock, or the subspecies C. e. nelsoni, or Rocky Mountain elk.
Since my first up close and personal encounter with a wild elk in those Montana mountains, I’ve come to appreciate and respect the elk like no other species of animal. As well, I’ve been privileged over the past decade to observe these immense cervids in the Colorado Rockies while listening to bugling bulls bellowing their primordial calls. The sight and sound, and even scent, of elk are unique amongst all that is wild.
What’s more, we are lucky here in Minnesota to live in the backyard of the regal elk. This native and beautiful animal once ranged throughout most of the state, but in the last 100 years or so has been mostly relegated to the far northwestern corner of Minnesota where it historically has always lived.
The vision of Minnesota’s elk, as described in Minnesota’s elk management plan, is, “…to enhance the size and range extent of Minnesota’s elk population and provide increased recreational opportunities, while maintaining positive coexistence with private landowners.”
You can learn more about Minnesota’s elk by visiting this webpage, reading the state’s new 2016-2020 elk management plan, and providing comments on an online questionnaire if you so wish. www.dnr.state.mn.us/elk/index.html
On the webpage you’ll be able to watch two giant Kittson County, Minnesota bull elk in an astonishing display of power and clashing antlers. Just click on the Natural History tab and you’ll find the video. And as you watch, imagine being there amongst Minnesota’s elk as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at email@example.com.)