Minnesota hunters will have a few more opportunities to shoot an elk this fall near Lancaster, Minn., in Kittson County after winter aerial surveys tallied a population that remains above management goals for the Kittson Central herd.

Minnesota has three elk herds: The Kittson Central herd, the “Border Herd” on the Manitoba border in northeast Kittson County and a fledgling herd near Grygla, Minn.

Under a rule signed Thursday by Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen, 27 elk tags will be available this fall, up five from last year.

The tag increase comes on the heels of a winter aerial survey that tallied 94 elk in the Kittson Central herd, said John Williams, regional wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, up from 75 elk in the 2018 survey.

The DNR manages the Kittson Central herd with a population goal of 50 to 60 elk. In an effort to bring the population closer to that goal, the DNR offered 20 tags for the 2018 season in the Kittson Central Zone -- up from eight tags in 2017 -- and hunters shot 15 elk.

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In that context, the most recent population increase came as a surprise, Williams said, prompting another hike in antlerless tags.

The DNR is offering 25 tags for the Kittson Central herd -- Zone 20 -- divvied up over four seasons: Sept. 7-Sept. 16 (five antlerless tags and two either-sex tags), Sept. 21-29 (six antlerless tags and one either-sex tag), Oct. 5-13 (five antlerless tags and one either-sex tag) and Dec. 7-15 (five antlerless tags).

The DNR until 2018 set regulations that were protective of cow elk because of a two-year research project that began in 2016, Williams said. Now, reducing the Kittson Central herd is the priority.

“We intend to hammer the reproductive potential to get it down within goal range,” he said. “We’re committed fully to reaching that goal level.”

The DNR again will offer two bull-only tags Sept. 7-15 in the Kittson northeast zone -- Zone 30 -- in the Caribou area, where an elk herd ranges between Minnesota and Manitoba.

No explanation

Williams says he can’t explain the increase in the Kittson Central elk herd. New elk could have joined the herd, he says, some elk could have been outside the survey area during previous counts or surveys simply could have missed animals within the census area.

Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

All are plausible theories.

“Something changed; something happened,” he said. “There’s all sorts of explanations, but to have the right answer is speculative at best.”

The DNR didn’t fly the Caribou survey area this winter, Williams said; unless Manitoba flies the same day, the survey results don’t mean much, and Manitoba didn’t fly its route this year.

“What we found out from the past is if you fly the Minnesota side only, our numbers have been as low as seven in one day and as high as more than 70 the next just because of the way elk are moving across the border,” Williams said. “Unless you can do both sides, it doesn’t give you a true sense of the population.”

In 2017, the last time both jurisdictions flew the same day, the survey tallied 132 elk, Williams said, which is below Manitoba’s goal of 150.

Offering two bull tags in the Caribou area provides the opportunity to hunt some real trophy-caliber elk without impacting the herd’s reproductive potential, Williams said.

Again this year, the DNR won’t offer a season near Grygla, despite the first population increase in several years. This year’s survey tallied 19 elk, Williams said, up from 15 last year and 17 in 2017.

That remains below the DNR’s management goal of 30 to 38 elk.

“That herd is just hanging on,” Williams said.

Hunters can apply for elk tags through Friday, June 14, at any DNR license agent, the DNR License Center, online or by telephone at (888) 665-4236.

More info: www.mndnr.gov/hunting/elk.

John Williams, Northwest Region wildlife manager, Bemidji.
John Williams, Northwest Region wildlife manager, Bemidji.

Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken