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Bones may shed light on fate of area's vanished elk

Elk disappeared from this region more than 150 years ago, a victim of overhunting and the clear-cutting of much of the countryside for agriculture.

Not much more is known about that population, but a discovery in Cassadaga Lake is expected to fill some blanks.

Gale Smagacz of Lily Dale stumbled onto the bones of an elk on the upper lake one hot afternoon in August 2006.

"I was out kayaking with a friend, and we decided to park our kayaks on the shore and walk out a little way and take a dip just to cool off," he said. "I stepped on something, and I pulled up this big bone and said, 'What is this?' "

Smagacz said he thought it was the neck bone from a cow until he took a few more steps and stepped on something else. This time, he pulled up an antler, attached to a part of a skull. A little more exploration brought up more large bones.

Smagacz, who described himself as a "treasure hunter," thought he had filled his kayak with parts of a deer carcass -- until he showed the bones to friends.

"They laughed at me and said that's not a deer antler," he said. "One of the women had lived out west, and she said it was an elk antler."

The state Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed the find and sent the bones to Bob Feranek, a paleontologist and curator with the State Museum.

"The last elk ever seen in New York was shot and killed around 1834," Feranek said. "It's at least that old, and it could be thousands of years old."

Carbon-dating tests are expected to provide a more precise date, he said. For Feranek, the bones are pieces of a puzzle about how one of the area's largest indigenous animal species lived -- and how it died, at least in this state.

"In a more broad scale, it brings extinction into people's minds," he said. "This animal went extinct in this state. The closest natural herd is in Wisconsin. It brings back the idea that there used to be a lot of animals here that are extinct."

A subsequent trip to the area where the bones were found led to the discovery of a second elk.

Feranek said he was happy Smagacz made the discoveries, but even more thrilled that he decided to donate both set of bones to the state.

"The stuff that scientists do is a lot of times dependent on people like Gale finding a specimen and donating it so we can study it," he said. "He could have kept it and put it up on his mantel, and it would have looked nice for him. But we would not have had any information on this animal."

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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