This week on Minnesota Native News, we hear about the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s proposal to reintroduce elk to its reservation and surrounding area in an effort to build the elk population in Minnesota.
We speak with the band’s wildlife biologist Mike Schrage for more on the repopulation effort. Here’s reporter Cole Premo.
In early July, the Fond du Lac Band announced it officially submitted a proposal to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that seeks to relocate 100 to 150 elk from existing herds in the northwest part of the state.
The elk would then be reintroduced to the Fond du Lac Reservation, located to the west of Duluth. The elk would also be relocated to the Fond du Lac State Forest in Carlton and southern St. Louis counties.
Mike Schrage is the band’s wildlife biologist. He’s worked with the band since 1995, but is not a member of the tribe.
“There’s a lot less agriculture over on (the northeast) side of the state,” he said. “It’s not row crops such as corn and soybeans, it’s smaller livestock and pasture operations. There’s a lot more forest and a lot more public lands, so we think in years to come there’s a lot more room to have a bigger elk herd on this side of the state,” said Schrage.
Elk, known as “omashkooz” by the Ojibwe people, once had a population in the thousands and a range covering most of the state, according to historic estimates. But they are now confined to two small herds in northwestern Minnesota.
Band officials say the objective of the proposal is, in part, for elk to “once again play a role in the diet and culture of the region’s native peoples.” That includes a robust elk herd that would provide for future hunting opportunities, for both tribal and nontribal members.
It would also bring back a native species that Schrage says is well-equipped for climate change.
“It’s pretty clear that (climate change) is likely to happen in some fashion and elk are a very versatile, adaptable animal, and would deal well with whatever future climate change comes,” said Schrage.
A lot of work is needed between now and moving the first elk, Schrage said.
“We need to step up surveillance for chronic wasting disease both in northwest Minnesota, where elk are, and also here around the Fond du Lac Reservation to make sure the disease is not present. There’s more fundraising that needs to be done, there’s holding facilities that need to be built and management plans that need to be written,” said Schrage.
All of this will involve more public input, Schrage says. The proposal cites feasibility studies that found solid public support from landowners and residents of the area, but there are still concerns.
In a recent episode of Native Lights: Where Indigenous Shine, we spoke with a Fond du Lac elder and retired wildland firefighter, Vern Northrup, who had concerns about the potential spread of disease.
“I have mixed feelings about that. Especially with this CWD. I have mixed feelings about taking a herd animal and putting them in another area where they possibly can spread the prion. That worries me. I’m gonna need some assurances from resources or the tribe before I get on board with that,” said Northrup.
The feasibility studies found that the restoration area has a biological capacity of 287 elk. I asked Mike Schrage about how the elk would be moved.
“Literally in a stock trailer, same sort of thing you would put cows in. Other states, Wisconsin, they got elk from Kentucky and they basically load them into a stock trailer and drive them up to Wisconsin from Kentucky. West Virginia got elk the same way from both Kentucky and Arizona. So, wild elk ride very well in ain a stock trailer. The initial catching of elk can be done a couple of different ways: use a baited corral trap, basically lure elk into a corral with hay or grain or something. They would find things they want to eat and then shut the door behind them. Or you can use a helicopter with a tranquilizer darts or net guns to to capture them,” said Schrage.
If the proposal is approved, the band hopes to begin moving the first elk by the winter of 2025.
The Native Lights interview with Vern Northrup will be on MNNativeNews.org in the coming days, check all our shows there.
Cole Premo reporting for Minnesota Native News
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