An Elk Excursion: Easy and Worth the Trip
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., October 1, 2005.)
The screaming bugle of a huge trophy bull elk tells you he's just over the hill. You've been waiting for this for a long time. The sun is about to set, and you wonder if your optics are up to the task. Then, you see an enormous set of antlers silhouetted against the sky as the majestic elk approaches the crest of the hill. You're in position as he comes into focus through the lens. He bugles again and adds a series of grunts, the suffix to the elk's unique mating call. He's only 40 yards away, his mouth open, his chest heaving. It's the moment of truth.
Elk are easy to find and to photograph,
and they put on an impressive show.
You're not in Colorado's Rockies, or New Mexico's high country. You're on Winslow Hill, just south of St. Mary's in Elk County, Pennsylvania. And you're not carrying a rifle or a bow. You might not even be a hunter. You're carrying a camera, because this is one of the great shows in Pennsylvania.
When you go to Pennsylvania's elk woods, you'll wonder if you'll be lucky enough to see some. Will you be able to find the right place? Will you be there at the right time? Will the elk come out of the woods? Will they be close enough to see clearly? Will you hear that spine-tingling bugle you've heard on the Outdoor Channel? Will you see any bulls? Will they be big ones?
Don't worry. If you time your visit near dawn or dusk, the answer to every question is likely to be a resounding "Yes!" My dad and I saw about 60 one evening last week including some dandy bulls, and I've seen them from as close as 10 yards.
Right now it's mating season, and they're not shy. The bulls you see will be oblivious to nearly everything. They rake their antlers into the turf, rub them in trees, parade around bossing the little calves and bellowing at their rivals while focused on their gorgeous girlfriends.
Pennsylvania's original herd of eastern elk was killed off in the mid 1800's, but between the years 1913 and 1926 the Pennsylvania Game Commission undertook a restoration program. The PGC released 177 elk imported from mushrooming western herds into what it considered the best habitat in Pennsylvania for the big animals. By 1971 their number diminished to less than 70, but they got a foothold, and since then they have thrived.
By the year 2001, the population had bulged to more than 600, primarily in the rugged mountains of Elk and Cameron counties. Their success has been so great that, for the elk's own sake, the state now holds a limited hunting season in order to keep the herd from expanding to areas where they will be in conflict with other land uses or a threat to the public.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission promotes it's small herd of elk not just for hunters, but for everyone. The PGC has created several viewing areas to make it easy for people to enjoy the show. Probably the most popular one is on Winslow Hill near the tiny village of Benezette. From August through October, it is staffed on weekends for presentations.
The Game Commission conducts annual population surveys and performs habitat improvement projects on state lands. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has contributed significant dollars to help buy critical acreage on the primary elk range, erect deterrent fencing, improve habitat and construct the Winslow Hill elk viewing area. Other organizations contributing to the welfare of Pennsylvania elk include the National Wild Turkey Federation, Safari Club International, and non-hunting organizations as well.
If you haven't been to the elk woods of Pennsylvania, it's worth the trip. You'll discover that elk are easy to find and photograph, and they put on an impressive show. You might also see deer, turkeys and other wildlife. On one trip I was lucky enough to see a bald eagle. Without a doubt, this trip is one of the easiest and most enjoyable wildlife excursions the Keystone State has to offer, and it's free.