Elk are big news in Pennsylvania, and not just because the first hunting season in more than 70 years will be held there this fall.
There is a good elk range just four hours south of here. And the herd has grown so well that the village of Benezette will swell enormously Sept. 28-30 when the first Elk Expo will be held there. Take Route 219 south 40 miles past Bradford, turn east on Route 948 at Boot Jack and look for the signs to Benezette about 25 miles farther.
From now through early October you can hear and see mature bull elk bugling, their 5-foot antler spread majestically against the fall foliage, and their light summer coats turning a dark, tawny shade as they head into the rut and the winter to come.
The restocking of these huge, 600-pound members of the deer family began in 1913. It has been so successful that there are now some worries about agricultural depredation and about 10 car-elk collisions in the northwestern Pennsylvania elk range each year.
But that is not why the Game Commission is authorizing the first elk hunt in more than 70 years.
"The fact is we want to increase the elk herd significantly, and a very conservative hunting program can do that," says elk biologist Rawley Cogan.
"One square mile of elk habitat can support one to one and a half elk. The same area might support 20 whitetail deer, and my job is to show the public that hunting is a tool that can actually improve the herd's size and health," he said.
Pennsylvania now has from 700 to 750 elk in an elk range that could easily support 1,250 animals, which would make spotting them more likely. Worse, some elk are literally dying of old age, Cogan says, "and we have one 22-year-old cow that has not had a calf since she was 14. By culling the herd carefully we can lower the age and get better reproduction. If we reduce the herd by 14 percent (of older, nonproductive) animals we will have a much higher replacement rate of younger, healthier specimens.
"It's hard to make people see that, because say 'hunting' and people think of reducing the herd, not helping it to increase."
This year just 30 permits will be drawn -- 15 for bulls, 15 for cows -- in just a portion of the state's elk management units. The five-day season will run from Nov. 12 to 17, after the rut is over and cows bred. If it works, over the years, the elk herd will expand and hunting opportunities will slowly increase to continue to achieve management goals.
"We have a million deer hunters in this state who hunt that herd hard, Cogan says, "and we still have trouble keeping deer numbers in line with habitat."
The real problems are, of course, political and emotional.
A very small number of farmers are complaining about elk damage. A much larger number of people see elk as a means of injecting much needed dollars into Appalachia through eco-tourism, wildlife watching and hunters' dollars. And there are people who just like to see elk back in places where they existed long before farmers came along.
This interesting problem is one we may face in New York soon, as there is growing pressure to reintroduce elk to areas they used to roam in this state.
Elk were extirpated from Pennsylvania by 1867, just as deer were driven from Western New York by 1900. In 1895, when the Pennsylvania Game Commission was formed, efforts began to replenish deer, turkey and quail (first) and eventually elk, with 50 shipped from Yellowstone in 1913 at a cost of $30 each. Half went to Clinton County, half to Clearfield County. The next year 22 more were split between Monroe and Centre counties.
The elk cooperated. After grueling rail journeys and released in areas chosen by politics rather than science, they spread out, heading for better habitat. Then 95 more elk were imported in 1915 and complaints from farmers began. Although elk were protected by law until 1921, a lot of poaching went on. When legal hunts began (bulls only) a dozen or more were shot annually, with the record in 1927 when two dozen bulls were killed. The hunt stopped in 1931 and the Great Depression and World War II put hunting on the back burner. But by the 1950s elk were rebounding.
In the last decade, there has been a lot of help: The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation kicked in $125,000 to buy habitat and help establish the elk viewing area at Winslow Hill near Benezette. The National Wild Turkey Foundation has helped, as has the Safari Club, and local, state and national groups chipped in too.
"Go to the viewing area any day between now and early October and you'll see interpretive programs, talk with people who can tell you a lot about elk and a have a good chance to see and hear these animals," Cogan said. "On weekends there may be 200, 300 people there. Weekdays are a little less crowded."
You also might consider attending Elk Expo in Benezette. They'll have everything from parades and street dances to all sorts of family-oriented outdoor recreation including pontoon boat rides, an elk calling contest Saturday and Sunday and Chris Kirby, of Quaker Boy calls, will give calling demonstrations those days, too. Of course there will be food, gear gadgets and souvenirs galore. Trust me, this will be about as much elk excitement as you can stand. It could be fun and a diversion from the sadness and worry we are experiencing now.
For more information on elk in log on to http://sites.state.pa.us/PA_Exec/PGC/elk/ and for the Elk Expo, check www.pagreatoutdoors.com/elkexpo.htm.