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Elk expansion on hold in Minnesota

LANCASTER, Minn. -- Northwest Minnesota ranchers are pleased by the shelving of a controversial plan to increase the number of free-ranging elk in the state. But ranchers say the underlying issue hasn't been resolved.

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Photo courtesy Wisconsin DNR
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LANCASTER, Minn. - Northwest Minnesota ranchers are pleased by the shelving of a controversial plan to increase the number of free-ranging elk in the state. But ranchers say the underlying issue hasn’t been resolved.

“The situation we’re in with the elk, it (putting the plan on hold) was the right thing to do,” says Donnie Schmiedeberg, a Lancaster, Minn., rancher whose hay, fences and pastures have been damaged repeatedly by elk. “But I’m still concerned about being able to manage the elk we have already.”

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the state agency charged with wildlife management, developed a plan that would have increased the state’s elk population, all of it in three herds in the northwest corner of the state, from the current 130 to about 200 in the next five years. Supporters say more elk would increase hunting and viewing opportunities, bringing more tourists to northwest Minnesota.

The new 2016 to ’20 plan, which would replace the expired 2009 to ’15 plan, was expected to be finalized and implemented in late spring or early summer.

But Schmiedeberg and other ranchers opposed the increase. By all accounts, elk are a large and powerful animal that can damage ranchers’ property, costing producers time and money. More elk would mean more loss and stress, ranchers say.

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Responding to constituent concerns, Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, pushed a measure in the 2016 state legislative session to halt elk expansion until state officials can show damage caused by elk hasn’t increased for at least two years.

“There was concern about the herd getting bigger, when the current number already is doing so much damage,” Fabian says, who notes that he is an elk hunter and avid outdoorsman.

The bill was approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Given that, DNR will maintain “the status quo. There won’t be any intentional increase” in elk numbers for at least two years, say John Williams, DNR Northwest Region wildlife manager and project manager.

But, the Grygla herd in Marshall County could increase in what Williams calls “recovery mode.” The herd now has 20 elk, below DNR’s 2009 goal of 30 to 38 elk, and the agency hopes to add about 10 elk, which would put the herd within its target range.

DNR will continue to study the issue, in part through ongoing elk research. The agency will also continue to work with landowners and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Williams says.

One example: DNR will try to improve the placement of food plots created to reduce elk depredation on ag operations.

DNR doesn’t have a timetable for developing a new elk management plan, Williams says.

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“It’s a work in progress,” he says.

Fabian says he doesn’t think DNR will try to increase elk numbers in two years unless the agency can show that doing so wouldn’t lead to more damage for ranchers and farmers.

“I think DNR has been given a pretty clear directive on this,” he says. “The ball is in the court of the DNR.”

The two-year waiting period is “a reasonable compromise,” says Ashley Kohls, executive director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association.

Schmiedeberg, who stresses he’s not anti-elk, says he’s encouraged the proposed 2016 to ’20 plan was put on hold. But he worries that existing elk will continue to damage his property.

“They (DNR officials) still need to demonstrate they can manage the elk they have already,” he says.

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