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Northwest Minn. elk survey produces mixed results

GRYGLA, Minn. -- Results from winter aerial surveys show elk populations in Kittson County are holding steady, but numbers in the other northwest Minnesota herd near Grygla have fallen to the point where the Department of Natural Resources may not offer a season this fall.

According to Doug Franke, area wildlife manager for the department in Thief River Falls, the survey tallied 28 elk near Grygla, down from 40 during the previous survey in 2010. Survey crews counted 53 elk in 2009 and 55 elk in 2008, which means the herd today is about half what it was five years ago.

Funding shortfalls prevented the department from surveying the Grygla herd in 2011, and lack of snow grounded the survey last winter, Franke said.

Snow is essential to spotting the animals from the air.

Joel Huener, manager of Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area near Middle River, Minn., said the Department of Natural Resources manages the Grygla herd with a pre-calving population goal of 33 to 38 elk. Huener is meeting Monday with members of a Grygla elk advisory group to discuss the latest survey and what it means for the prospects of offering a hunting season this fall.

The advisory group includes landowners, a county extension agent and a representative from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The Grygla elk herd falls within Huener's work area.

"Based on the survey, we're well below the goal for this population, and my guess is that means we're probably not going to have a hunt this year," Huener said. "We haven't made the final recommendation at this point."

The Department of Natural Resources first offered elk hunts near Grygla in 1987, and subsequent seasons were held from 1996 through 1998, Huener said. There were no seasons from 1999 through 2004, when populations dipped below management goals, but the Grygla hunt resumed in 2005 and has been offered every year since.

Expanded count

Franke and a department pilot flew the Grygla elk survey in early February, canvassing 133 square miles from the south shore of Thief Lake east and north to Dick's Parkway, a major road in Beltrami Island State Forest.

The Department of Natural Resources this year expanded the survey, which previously covered about 80 miles, north and west from Grygla to include parts of Thief Lake WMA known to have elk in the summer, Franke said. The department also changed the protocol for this year's elk surveys, he said, initially flying an airplane at 400 to 500 feet to spot elk and then following up with a helicopter at lower altitudes and slower speeds to get a more exact count.

Franke said he saw three separate groups of four bulls, along within another group of 16 antlerless elk, all within about five square miles of each other north of Grygla.

"We did not find them anywhere farther west where we have seen them in the summer," he said. "The thought was to expand the winter survey to make sure we weren't missing elk, but we just did not pick up anymore animals. Twenty-eight is a low number; we haven't gotten that low for several years."

Snow conditions were excellent, Franke said, so spotting elk from the air wasn't a problem.

"The visibility was about as good as it gets, so we had a really high confidence in our observation," he said.

Kittson survey

Elk were more abundant in Kittson County, where the Department of Natural Resources survey indicated the population is near or slightly higher than management goals.

According to Christine Reisz, area wildlife manager for the department in Karlstad, the elk population in the so-called "Kittson Central" hunting zone is comprised of a herd north of Lancaster and another group southeast of town near Percy Wildlife Management Area. Reisz said the survey tallied 28 elk -- 13 bulls and 15 cows or calves -- north of Lancaster, along with 17 elk with four bulls, nine cows and four calves southeast of Lancaster.

The department manages the Kittson Central herds with a pre-calving population goal of 20 to 30 elk.

A third Kittson elk herd is in Caribou Township in the far northeast corner of the county near the Canadian border and ranges between Manitoba and Minnesota. Reisz said the survey crew counted 15 bulls and two cows near Caribou, but ground reports earlier in the winter had tallied about 55 elk on the Minnesota side of the border.

About that same time, Reisz said she also received reports of about 45 elk in Manitoba, which means the Caribou herd likely numbers about 100 animals between the two sides of the border.

"They move into Canada (and back) at will," she said.

Reisz said wildlife managers in Minnesota and Manitoba haven't yet finalized population goals for the Caribou herd.

Low success

As in Grygla, lack of snow prevented the Department of Natural Resources from conducting an aerial survey last winter in Kittson County, but ground reports last spring put the population of the two Lancaster herds at about 45 after calving, Reisz said.

In an effort to keep numbers in check, the department offered 16 permits between September and December hunting seasons in Kittson County, but only six elk were killed, Reisz said.

The department offered its first elk season in Kittson County in 2009 in response to growing complaints from landowners.

"The first couple of hunts, it was almost a guaranteed 100 percent success rate, but it has gone down since then," Reisz said.

Despite reduced hunting success, Reisz said the department is getting fewer depredation complaints from ag producers in areas with elk.

"They're staying out of trouble and not herding up," she said. "You don't see all 45 of them in a group. They're a little bit more scared."

Near Grygla, poor hunting success last fall likely reflected the decline in the area's elk herd. The department issued two either-sex tags for the September season near Grygla, and a single 5x5 bull was taken. The December season was a bust, and all three of the antlerless-only tags the department issued went unfilled.

Huener said the department likely will make preliminary recommendations by the end of this month about whether to offer a season this fall near Grygla.

The big unknown is why the Grygla herd is declining.

"We haven't had a winter survey there for a couple of years now, so what's happened? Have they moved or has there been predation or something else?" Huener said. "We don't have these animals radio-collared so that's a bit of an unknown at this point in time.

"It would be speculation for me to talk about what happened to them. We don't know."