Catching a glimpse of Benezette’s majestic elk

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Winslow Hill elk viewing area sits at the top of a mountain with a view of the lush meadow below. We arrived as the sky was shifting from blue to sunset colors of orange and red. 

A group of elk called a harem slowly grazed on the grasses during the bewitching golden hour. Many photographers and spectators were watching in hushed silence watching the elk and hoping to hear the signature bugle of a bull.

The landscape is a combination of farmlands and forests where Pennsylvania’s elk herd roams near Benezette, Pennsylvania. Mountainous Elk County is home to close to 1,400 Rocky Mountain elk. 

First encounter

We first visited the town of Benezette about five years ago. The cabin we stayed at was right on the edge of town, along the Bennett Branch Sinnemahoning Creek. 

The cabin was within walking distance to everything in town which is mainly a hotel with a restaurant, a gas station and an ice cream store. There is also a winery and a few other local businesses. 

The town is a quaint combination of rental cabins and local residents. It is famous because of the elk that occasionally roam the streets and wooded areas. 

During our first trip, we experienced our own version of the boy who cried wolf. Except, in our case, it was the boy who cried elk. 

Just like in the traditional tale, our son tricked us twice by excitedly yelling that there was an elk in the yard. When he screeched again for the third time that he spotted an elk, I didn’t believe him. It took my daughter running back into the cabin to find me before I finally caved in and went out to see.

Majestic sight

It certainly was a large elk. Male elk, called bulls, can reach up to 700 pounds. They measure 5 feet at the shoulder and 8 feet from nose to shoulder. Female elk, called cows, are smaller weighing in at a mere 500 pounds. Bulls’ antlers alone can weigh 40 pounds. 

As we stood on the porch watching the elk, I was astonished for several reasons. I had never been that close to large wildlife in a natural setting before. It was probably only 20 yards away from the cabin. I was also surprised by its gentle nature as it casually grazed in the yard. 

Later that evening, we were in for another treat as two bull elk were bugling behind the cabin. A bull’s bugle sounds like a high-pitched squeal along with several grunts. Bugling occurs during the mating season running from mid-September to mid-October. 

Elk are native to the Allegheny Mountains and were heavily hunted by settlers and Native Americans. Unfortunately in the 1870s, the large elk population was extirpated. The typically gentle giants were no longer seen in the woods and meadows of Pennsylvania. 

Relocation

The game commission, established in 1895, had a lofty goal of replenishing the state’s dwindling wildlife populations. At the same time, across the country, Yellowstone National Park and the Jackson Hole Refuge Area had such a success in protecting the elk population that there was an overabundance. Instead of sanctioning hunting of the animals, they began to relocate the elk. 

In 1913, the first 50 elk from Wyoming arrived in Pennsylvania by train. The elk were protected by a law passed by the General Assembly. The elk were not to be hunted until 1921 when a two-week elk season would open.

Two years later, 95 more elk were delivered and released in Pennsylvania. The replanted Rocky Mountain elk herd was growing. 

The elk herd population had many years of highs and lows. The elk were originally released near farmland. They caused widespread crop damage, angering farmers. 

Due to the low population, 1931 was the last year for many decades that there was an elk hunting season. It wasn’t until 2001 that elk were legally hunted again in Pennsylvania. 

Changing cycle

Our recent trip to Benezette in September of 2021 showed us that the life of the elk in Pennsylvania continues to change. Due to new food plots planted near the visitor center, few elk are seen in town now. 

The visitor center is operated by the Keystone Elk Country Alliance. At dawn and dusk, viewing areas at the visitor center and Winslow Hill are the best places to see elk. 

As the elk herd has grown, the amount of visitors has grown as well. My advice is to go early and expect delays in the viewing areas and the visitor center.

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