The Pennsylvania Elk Success Story
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, September 24, 2011.)
Shrill, and guttural. High pitched, and deep. A scream, and a grunt. The bugle of a majestic bull elk contains those contradictions and more, and its reveille call is as wild a sound as anyone will hear in North America.
Don’t miss one of the best wildlife
viewing opportunities anywhere.
And yet, it’s as common and regular in Pennsylvania as Sunday drivers at the peak of the leaf viewing season. In fact, any day of the week from mid-September to mid-October, your ears will ring with elk bugles, if you’re in the right place.
No longer associated just with the western wilderness, a healthy herd of elk lives in the Keystone State. Numbering about 800, they’re spread across Elk, Cameron, McKean, Potter, Clinton, Centre and Clearfield counties, and they might be the most accessible wild animals in America.
If you’ve never seen them, you’re missing one of the best wildlife viewing opportunities anywhere in the world. And even if you don’t see elk, just hearing a bugling bull is worth the trip.
But you will see elk. The right place is Benezette, PA south of St. Marys in Elk County. Up Winslow Hill from Benezette is a brand new Elk Visitors Center that should be the hub of your elk excursion.
Operated by the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, it’s a first-class facility where you’re encouraged to have a hands-on experience with antlers, hides, and other elk artifacts. Spend a little time in the souvenir shop full of locally produced gift merchandise. Your dollars will provide funds to support elk habitat.
A panoramic sensory-surround theater tells the story of elk from the first steps of a newborn Pennsylvania elk calf in spring, to an antler-on-antler sparring match in the fall mating season, and the fight to survive winter’s cruelty.
As for seeing elk in their natural habitat, a horse-drawn wagon is one option. But whether or not you ride the wagon, you’ll see elk. Not only that, you may see deer, wild turkeys, even a bear. I’ve seen at least one of those three species every time I’ve been there, and sometimes all three.
Elk are native to Pennsylvania and once lived throughout the state. By the mid-1800s logging and mining camps were steadily reducing elk habitat and market hunters were using elk to feed the loggers and miners. By the 1870s native elk had vanished.
From 1913 to 1926, the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) imported 177 elk from Yellowstone Park and other places in an effort to recolonize them. The 20th century saw the herd persevere through ups and downs, with the downs sometimes at fewer than 50 animals.
In the 1970s the PGC committed to keep the remnant animals from disappearing a second time. A grant from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in 1990 enabled the purchase of 1359 acres on Winslow Hill, which became State Game Lands 311.
The health of any species depends on habitat, and this land has been managed to offer premium habitat. It grassy meadows are ideal for birthing and raising elk calves, and during the rut the high population of cows attracts magnificent bulls with antlers as big as you’ll see anywhere.
Since 2001, a limited hunting season has helped minimize crop damage, collisions with cars, and other conflicts with people. Annually, several dozen tags are offered by lottery. The chance to draw a tag is low, but the opportunity to fill a tag is high.
More important than the limited hunt is the unlimited opportunity to witness up close one of the great success stories in modern wildlife management, and you owe it to yourself to go see them. But a few cautions are in order.
First, remember that elk are wild animals so maintain a safe distance, and keep a barrier between you and any elk that’s less than 40 yards away. Second, remember that not all property is public, so respect those who live in the area. And third, drive slowly – there might be a group of elk viewers standing near a parked car just around the bend.
The sights and sounds of Pennsylvania elk are thrilling, and you’ll come away with real appreciation for one of the most majestic animals on earth.