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Northwest Minnesota elk numbers hover above goal in Lancaster area

DNR is offering 30 licenses for the 2022 elk season in Kittson County, same as last year.

Elk photo
A herd of elk stands watch at Skull Lake Wildlife Management Area in Kittson County in this April 2005 photo.
Contributed/ Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
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ST. PAUL – The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is offering 30 licenses for the 2022 elk season in Kittson County of northwest Minnesota, same as last year, according to hunting season information published on the DNR website .

The application deadline is Friday, June 17. Elk licenses are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in Minnesota open to residents only, and demand far outpaces available tags.

READ MORE HUNTING COVERAGE:

In Zone 20 near Lancaster, Minnesota, an area that includes Skull Lake, Beaches Lake and Percy wildlife management areas, the DNR is offering two “hunter choice” licenses – good for either a bull or a cow – in each of four seasons: Aug. 27-Sept. 4, Sept. 10-18, Sept. 24-Oct. 2 and Oct. 8-16.

During those same time frames, five antlerless licenses will be available for each of the four Zone 20 seasons.

Elk Zone Map by inforumdocs on Scribd

In Zone 30, which includes the Caribou Township area of northeast Kittson County, the DNR is offering two bull-only licenses for a season that will begin Sept. 10 and continue through Sept. 18.

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There are currently three recognized elk herds in northwest Minnesota: Grygla, Kittson Central and Kittson Northeast, which is also referred to as the Caribou-Vita or border herd, because the animals range between Minnesota and Manitoba.

Down, but above goal

The announcement about the upcoming season comes on the heels of the DNR’s winter aerial elk survey, which tallied 84 elk – 33 bulls and 51 antlerless – in the Lancaster survey area. That compares with 16 bulls and 45 antlerless elk in 2017, 18 bulls and 57 antlerless elk in 2018, 33 bulls and 61 antlerless elk in 2019 and 33 bulls and 69 antlerless elk in 2020.

The DNR did not fly a survey in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under state law, the DNR must try to manage the Kittson County herd with a population goal of 50 to 60 elk.

Elk hunters in northwest Minnesota had an overall success rate of 82% last fall during the four, nine-day seasons in Zone 20 and 100% success for the two bull-only tags that were available in Zone 30 of northeast Kittson County.

Blane Klemek.jpg
Blane Klemek, acting Northwest Region wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji.
Contributed / Blane Klemek

“We’re aggressively trying to get that herd over there in Lancaster to that population goal range,” said Blane Klemek, acting Northwest Region wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji. “There must be some effect to that management, to that hunt management strategy, because obviously, the number is smaller, but what is also smaller, moreso, is that antlerless number. That really did drop quite a bit – 69 antlerless animals in 2020 and two years later, 51.

“So you can, I suppose, surmise that the hunting strategy is impacting those antlerless numbers to some degree.”

About the survey

As part of the survey, DNR personnel in a fixed-wing aircraft fly one-fifth-mile transects at an altitude of 300 to 400 feet and speeds of 80 to 90 mph, counting the elk they see below.

In northeast Kittson County, the DNR did not survey the Caribou-Vita herd because Manitoba didn't fly its portion of the survey. The DNR only surveys the Caribou-Vita herd during winters when it can coordinate the survey with Manitoba because numbers on each side of the border can vary dramatically from one day to the next.

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The DNR did count six bulls during the Lancaster survey that were in Zone 30, the area in northeast Kittson County, where two bull-only tags are available this fall.

“I would have to say that Caribou-Vita herd is doing very well,” and approaching Manitoba’s population goal of 200 elk, Klemek said, a minimum for establishing a hunt on that side of the border. “The population hasn’t reached that 200 number yet, but it’s inching up that way.”

Elk hunting in that part of Manitoba currently is limited to First Nations members.

Good news in Grygla

Also encouraging was an uptick in elk numbers for the Grygla herd, Klemek said. The winter survey tallied 29 elk – 14 bulls and 15 antlerless – which is below the DNR’s goal of a pre-calving population of about 35 elk, but higher than any of the previous four surveys.

In 2017, survey crews counted only 17 elk in the Grygla herd.The DNR hasn’t offered a season in the Grygla area for several years.

“We’ve had a lot of concern about that population because it really kind of tanked,” Klemek said. “It wasn’t all that long ago there were 50 some animals in that Grygla population that we could count, and back in 2017, only 17 animals and this year 29. That’s a good sign.

“We still won’t be hunting that population until it gets up into that population goal range of 30 to 38.”

The DNR’s four-year elk management plan for northwest Minnesota expired in 2019, Klemek said, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed work on drafting and developing a new plan. The plan eventually will be updated, he said, but management plans for gray wolves and moose likely will take priority within the DNR’s Section of Wildlife in the short term.

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“(The) staff’s capacity to do two plans at once is not really something we can do at this point in time,” Klemek said. “We here in the region will be helping write this new management plan, but it will have to wait a little while yet.”

elk_plan by inforumdocs on Scribd

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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