- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Minnesota could use a few more good elk, wildlife managers said Thursday as they kicked off a series of public meetings on a draft management plan that calls for growing the small wild elk population in far northwestern Minnesota and increasing its range a bit.

The goals of the elk plan for 2016-2020 haven’t changed much from the current five-year plan, John Williams, the Department of Natural Resources’ northwest region wildlife manager, said in a conference call with reporters. One of the main changes is to raise the target population for one of the state’s three herds, and the agency would like to build up another herd that’s below its goal range, he said.

Elk were once native to most of Minnesota but were nearly wiped out by the early 1900s due to overhunting and conversion of native prairies to farmland. The state now has about 130 elk in three herds. One herd roams north of Grygla. Another one moves between northeastern Kittson County and Manitoba, Canada. Another herd lives in central Kittson County near Lancaster.

While the DNR believes support for a higher elk population is growing, some farmers in the elk range oppose it because the animals eat their grain and hay crops, raid their forage supplies and knock down their fences. The management plan seeks to balance public support for more elk against landowner tolerance. Very limited hunting would continue to be allowed if a herd exceeds its population goals.

“I am very confident that hunter demand for the permits will far exceed the supply,” said Steve Merchant, the department’s wildlife populations and regulations manager.

Because of local support, Williams said, the population goal for the Lancaster herd would rise from 20-30 to 65-75. Because of local resistance, the goal for the Grygla herd would stay at 30-38, but the population of that herd was estimated at just 18 in February. Williams said officials aren’t sure why that herd has shrunk in recent years, though poaching and wolves might be factors, and that growing it back into the upper end of its goal range as wildlife managers would likely be difficult anyway.

The first of three public meetings on the draft plan was set for Thursday night in suburban New Brighton. Others were set for Dec. 15 in Lancaster and Dec. 16 in Grygla.

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