- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Researchers have begun outfitting elk in far northwestern Minnesota with GPS radio collars for the first time as part of a broader study to better track their movements and how the animals use different kinds of habitat at various times of the year, Department of Natural Resources officials said Wednesday.

The goal is to collar 20 female elk, and the agency hopes to finish the work by the end of the week, project leader Gino D’Angelo told reporters on a conference call. The first day of collaring was Tuesday and he said it went well, with five adult cow elk quickly captured, collared and safely released.

“In terms of amping up our elk management, this is paramount,” D’Angelo said.

The DNR hired a helicopter capture crew to do the work. D’Angelo said the pursuits lasted less than five minutes. The helicopter crew cuts an elk away from the herd and fires a net from a special gun to stop it. The helicopter lands nearby and three crew members dash out to restrain and blindfold the animal, attach the collar and ear tags, take some samples and measurements and send it on its way. The handling takes less than 10 minutes, he said.

Field reports indicate the herds don’t flee far and the collared animals return to their herds “pretty quickly,” D’Angelo said.

Spotters this winter counted 83 elk in the state’s elk range, which includes Kittson, Marshall and Roseau counties. That’s down from the 131 counted in three herds in the 2015 survey. But D’Angelo said that doesn’t mean Minnesota has fewer elk, and that the study should help explain the fluctuations.

One reason may be that they counted only 10 elk this winter from a herd that roams back and forth across the Canadian border, compared with 79 last year, said John Williams, the DNR’s northwest region wildlife manager.

The state’s elk range is a transition zone called the tallgrass aspen parklands, said Joel Huener, the DNR’s Thief Lake area wildlife supervisor. It’s more open and prairie-like to the west, with willows, brush and wetlands to the east. Elk use all those habitats, and the study will show their seasonal preferences, he said.

The study is a cooperative effort between the DNR and Minnesota State University, Mankato. It’s being funded by $200,000 in state lottery proceeds, $70,000 from the DNR and $10,000 from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

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 DNR is finalizing its new five-year elk management plan, which is aimed at growing the small population and expanding its range a little.

Separately, the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe will seek funding from the Legislature this year for a feasibility study on returning elk to northeastern Minnesota.

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