Elk Herd Makes Fall Special in Central PA.
There is little more special in nature than to be in Central Pennsylvania during September and October and seeing Pennsylvania’s largest mammal, the elk.
Many state residents do not realize Pennsylvania has wild, free ranging elk, yet we have 800 – 900 of the massive animals. We have the largest elk herd in the East.
Pennsylvania originally had eastern elk scattered across the state, but between man’s land use and hunting, eastern elk were extirpated by the late 1870s. There were some early elk reintroductions from western elk stock, but they were not overly successful. Elk did not get serious attention until the early 1970s when farmers were complaining of crop damage and the Pennsylvania Game Commission had Penn State start a major elk study. The study was dropped in 1974 because of lack of funds, but the fire was lit – something good was going to happen with elk in the Keystone state.
Penn State’s initial elk census in ’71 showed 65 elk, by 1981 there were 135. Ups and downs continued, but in ’93 we had 224 elk and by 2000 there were 566. At one point there was talk of an open elk season but locals killed so many elk that the commission felt a hunt could not be held.
The first modern-day elk hunt was in 2001 when the elk population was about 800 animals. Fifty thousand hunters applied for a license – that’s a lot of interest. Just 30 licenses were sold and 27 elk were bagged. From 2001 to 2012 hunters took 527 elk. During the last decade 66 to 113 elk have died annually from all known causes. Eighty-six elk licenses will be offered this year in what appears to be a healthy, ongoing elk management program.
Hunters are not the only ones with an interest in elk. Nature and wildlife lovers from across the state and surrounding states have taken a huge interest in them. They spend both time and money to view the magnificent animals, especially the huge bull elk.
During September and October multiple thousands of nature lovers travel to our primary elk range: Elk, Cameron, Clearfield, Clinton and Potter counties. The most well-known elk viewing location is near the Elk County Visitor Center, 134 Homestead Drive, Benezette, PA; 15821 (814 -787-5167.) In addition to the outstanding visitor center with its exhibits, informational programs and interactive exhibits, there is plenty of adjacent viewing area where elk can often be seen, especially at dawn and dusk.
The first thing to know about elk is they are huge. Adult cow elk weigh 400 - 600 pounds and adult bulls weigh between 600 – 1,000 pounds. It is not unusual when visiting to spot an 800 pound bull with an outstanding set of antlers. Elk lose their antlers in late winter the same as whitetail deer do.
Cows hang around together except during breeding season in September and October. During breeding season they form harems of up to 20 cows that are serviced by one bull. Calves are born in late May and early June.
Unlike deer, elk are grazers, feeding on forbs, legumes, grasses and grains found in natural and man-made openings and fields. Restored strip mines provide food for elk, as do areas cleared of trees strictly for elk habitat. There is over 2,000 acres of managed open land for elk planted with myriad grasses, clovers and grains. While those areas are planted for elk, many wildlife species benefit from it.
A major reason for man-made food plots for elk is to keep them on public land and away from unwanted human interactions, especially from agricultural crops and angry farmers.
Pennsylvania Game Commission manages elk, and research is an ongoing part of their program.
The elk’s successful return to Pennsylvania has required many hands. In addition to PGC, other partners include the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry, Bureau of State Parks, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, National Wild Turkey Federation, International Safari Club, local sportsmen’s clubs, and more.
The area holding most of our elk is referred to as the Pennsylvania Wilds. It is desolate but beautiful, which is why I like it and why soon I’ll be watching elk with friends from the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writer’s Association.
Check several websites, make a few phone calls and gather family or friends into the family SUV and head for the Pennsylvania Wilds.
Note: The address of the Visitor Center is provided above for those that wish to use Map Quest or a GPS for directions.