Most people know that elk, the second largest member of the deer family, roam widely in the West. Images of elk from western national parks immediately come to mind.
But it surprises many that Pennsylvania has a healthy elk population.
At the beginning of this year the population stood at about 900. These magnificent mammals can weigh from 400 (cows) to 1,000 (bulls) pounds. Thanks to habitat destruction and unregulated hunting, the last native elk disappeared from Pennsylvania sometime in the 1870s.
In an effort to restore the species to the state, the Game Commission reintroduced 145 elk from Yellowstone National Park to north central Pennsylvania from 1913 to 1915. They arrived via train and were simply released from boxcars.
At that point, the elk had to fend for themselves in a completely new environment. Within 15 years, elk disappeared from all but a few counties, but they had managed to grab the attention of farmers, hunters, and local wildlife watchers.
In the 1960s, farmers got more vocal about crop damage complaints and sought relief from the Game Commission. On the other hand, elk were becoming a popular tourist attraction.
In 1971, the first elk census counted 65 individuals. Subsequent counts indicated that the herd grew to 135 by 1981. Plans for a hunt to control the population in 1983 lacked local public support, and the elk herd stabilized at between 120-150 individuals.
By 1993, the population had increased to 224. And by 2000, the herd stood at 566.
Crop damage complaints continued, and in 2001 the state held its first elk hunt in more than 70 years. More than 50,000 hunters applied for permits to participate in that first elk hunt.
Only 30 licenses were granted, and those hunters killed 27 elk. Since then, the drawing for elk licenses gets about 20,000 applicants annually. Over the last 14 years the number of hunting permits issued varied as the elk population ebbed and flowed.
Because elk are polygynous (a single bull mates with a harem of females), more permits are typically issued for cows than for bulls. This insures that the population does not increase exponentially.
During the 14 years of the modern Pennsylvania elk hunt, 827 hunters have killed a total of 679 elk. The sex ratio of the harvest has been 423 cows to 255 bulls, or roughly 1.65 to one.
Because the Game Commission regulates the hunt so precisely, more than 80 percent of elk hunters usually kill an elk. Today, elk watching in Pennsylvania has become just as popular as elk hunting, maybe more so. The elk Country Visitors Center in Benezette caters to watchers.
From late August until mid October visitors descend on the area and sometimes even create traffic jams. The best time to see elk in Pennsylvania is late in the day during the rut, which is taking place right now.
The sight and sound of a big bugling bull elk makes a trip to elk country a memorable experience. For details on where and when to see elk, visit www.pgc.state.us and click on the “Elk Country Live Stream” button.
And if north central Pennsylvania is too far away, there is now a link to a live elk cam, courtesy of the Game Commission.
Remember, though, these are free roaming animals, so elk are not always in view. Though elk are most abundant out west, several other eastern states have followed Pennsylvania’s lead and restored elk populations. Michigan released seven individuals in 1918.
In January 2014, that population had grown to more than 650. From 1997 through 2001, Kentucky officials released 1,550 elk, and that population now stands at about 10,000 animals. In fact, Kentucky elk are so common, some have wandered into Virginia and southern West Virginia, and plans are underway for the Mountain State to establish its own herd within a few years.
And in 2001-2002, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park restored 52 elk to the park’s Cataloochee Valley. By 2011, about 150 elk roamed that section of the park.
Given these successes, it’s clear that elk are ideal candidates to be reintroduced and restored to places they once called home.
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