BEMIDJI, Minn. -- The Department of Natural Resources will not conduct its aerial elk surveys this winter in northwest Minnesota because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Putting a DNR employee in the cockpit of a plane with the pilot doesn’t provide the 6-foot social distancing buffer that health experts recommend to minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus, said John Williams, Northwest Region wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji.


The quarters are just too tight, Williams said. The DNR is not conducting its aerial winter moose survey in northeast Minnesota, either.

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Without the elk population data the aerial survey provides, the DNR will rely on reports from locals in both the Lancaster and Grygla, Minn., areas, where the flights are conducted, and observations from area wildlife managers and other field staff to compile population estimates, Williams said.

“We’ll be able to have some field data and then some modeling data, and then we’ll put the two together and come up with a figure,” he said.

The decision to cancel the winter survey comes at a time when elk populations near Lancaster in central Kittson County are above management goals, while elk numbers near Grygla remain below DNR goals.

The DNR tallied 102 elk last winter in the Kittson Central herd near Lancaster, up from 94 in the winter of 2019 and 75 in the winter of 2018.

The management goal for the Kittson Central herd is 50 to 60 elk. The DNR last winter counted 24 elk near Grygla, which was up from the previous two years but still below the management goal of 30 to 38 elk.

In response to last winter’s Kittson Central increase, the DNR offered a record 42 elk tags this past fall in Zone 20 near Lancaster, along with two bull tags in Zone 30 for a third herd, the Caribou-Vita herd, which ranges between Caribou Township in northeast Kittson County and Vita, Man., on the Canadian side of the border.

Minnesota DNR
Minnesota DNR

Hunters took 35 elk – 20 cows or antlerless elk and 15 bulls – in Zone 20 for a success rate of 83%, while both hunters drawing tags in Zone 30 shot bulls, DNR records show. The DNR hasn’t offered a season near Grygla in several years.

Without the benefit of an aerial survey, it remains to be seen how many elk tags the DNR will offer next fall in central Kittson County, Williams said. That will depend on ground observations and modeling estimates.

“I hate to be quoted on this, but I’m expecting we’re still going to have a fairly robust season” in Zone 20, he said. “I kind of doubt that we’ll have 42 tags available again … but I can only guess right now.”