The eerie sound of bugling bull elk permeated the thick blanket of fog that shrouded Winslow Hill. The elk were so close that I could almost feel them, but they remained hidden within the thick veil of fog. It was so thick that I could barely see the top of the Elk Country Visitors Center from the parking lot. It was truly a surreal experience to stand enveloped by the quieting fog, hear the bugles, and not be able to see the elk.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the elks’ reintroduction into Pennsylvania. I celebrated it by spending two wonderful days — Sept. 20 and 21 —in our northcentral elk country.
Pennsylvania’s official “elk range” comprises about 800 square miles in parts of Elk, Cameron, Clinton, Potter and Clearfield counties. Of course, elk do not recognize any “official” boundaries. Just this year, a significant sub-herd has located itself in Centre County near Snow Shoe.
Elk ranged throughout Pennsylvania 300 years ago, even including the present-day site of Philadelphia. However, advancing European settlers eliminated the native elk from many areas as the people moved west. By the late 1800s, eastern elk were extirpated from their last stronghold in northcentral Pennsylvania. They were gone from the state for about 50 years until the Pennsylvania Game Commission, in 1913, launched an effort to restore them.
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Today, Pennsylvania is home to well more than 900 elk. According to Keystone Elk Country Alliance CEO and President Rawley Cogan, this is a modern-day record for the Keystone State and the Commonwealth’s herd is the largest in the northeastern United States.
Today’s elk are descendants of western elk transplanted from Yellowstone National Park, along with a few that were released from a preserve in the northeastern part of the state. A total of 177 elk were stocked in Blair, Cameron, Carbon, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk Forest, Monroe and Potter counties between 1913 and 1926.
According to PGC records, at first, the elk thrived — so much so that a hunting season was held from 1923-1931. Hunters harvested 98 elk.
Hunting was stopped in 1931, but with no management plan and no one to monitor the population, Pennsylvania’s elk herd sadly dwindled to a low of fewer than 50 animals in 1974.
Fortunately, a small group of forward-thinking people began to realize the importance and value of having a healthy elk herd in Pennsylvania. Research was conducted by Penn State University and the Department of Forests and Waters in the 1970s. More studies were conducted by the Game Commission through the 1990s. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Commission partnered with groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the National Wild Turkey Federation to improve elk habitat. The herd once again grew.
Back to the present.
I had actually seen 10 elk on my drive from DuBois to Benezette that Friday morning — two young bulls and eight cows and calves — feeding along Route 555. However, there was no chance for photographs. I walked the trails at the Elk Center — hoping for a bull to materialize out of the fog —but none did.
Shortly after 8 a.m., I left the Elk Center with a small group of outdoor writers for a PGC-guided tour of State Game Lands 311 — an elk stronghold. We heard more bugling and it was an enlightening tour. However, as luck would have it, we saw only one cow elk and her calf. They bolted, and again there were no photo opportunities.
By noon, most elk were bedded down for the afternoon, so I sampled the native brook trout fishing in that part of the state. It was late afternoon when I stopped at the Benezette Store after fishing and ran into Elk County Wildlife Conservation Officer Doty McDowell, one of our morning tour leaders. We talked trout fishing, and then he asked if I had found a chance to photograph any elk. Of course, my answer was, “No.”
McDowell shared that he had just seen a nice bull elk and gave me directions to the location. A short time later, I was slowly sneaking along a gated State Game Lands road to the edge of a small wildlife planting. There, just as McDowell had said, was a mature bull elk bedded down near the corner of the field. Bingo — it was photo time.
The bull was only 35 yards away, but offered no clear photograph from my vantage point. I began to inch closer, moving down the tree line and snapping pictures when I could. The bull got up and thrashed the ground with his massive antlers — possibly warning me to keep away.
Just that quickly, hormones took over — he ignored me and began bugling. I had a front row seat. A single cow elk responded from my left and joined the bull. A few bugles later and three cows and three calves appeared out of the forest to my right. Two gentlemen from Chambersburg joined me and we continued to enjoy the show. Three younger bulls entered the field from the far end, but did not dare approach the larger bull.
Light was fading, so I ventured to the PGC Winslow Hill Elk Viewing Area and joined the 50 to 100 other people there watching a massive collared bull tending his herd of about 40 cows. It was a sight to see and another photo opportunity.
I enjoyed more trout fishing and more elk viewing the following day. In total, I saw more than 85 elk, and I caught almost that many trout. As I mentioned earlier — it was a wonderful two days.
You can share this experience through October, but really throughout the entire year. Now through Oct. 14, the Game Commission is holding special events throughout the elk range to commemorate the 100-year anniversary. If you go, be sure to stop at the Visitor Center on Winslow Hill. It is operated by the Keystone Elk Country Alliance.
Today, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., the Game Commission will hold a driving tour through State Game Lands 14. Meet at West Hicks Run parking lot. (GPS - N 41.43 W 78.361)
Van Wagner, an award-winning educator and musician, breathes life into the story of the elk’s comeback with his multimedia presentation celebrating 100 years of elk restoration in Pennsylvania. I have not yet experienced his program, but everyone who has sings high praises. The program features songs about rural Pennsylvania heritage, including songs about wildlife, logging, coal mining and more. Whether you are a Pennsylvania elk expert or just learning about them for the first time, this program is sure to entertain and inform.
For a complete list of events - including Wagner’s programs - visit the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.state.pa.us, and click on the “100th Anniversary PA Elk Restoration” icon.
With the success of the elk herd, hunting has returned as a means to control the growing population. Nov. 4 is the opening day of Pennsylvania’s 13th modern-day elk season. Eighty-six lucky hunters, out of over 20,000 applicants, will apply their skills and try their luck at harvesting an elk. Read about the hunt in the CDT on this page on November 10.
“This is a remarkable contrast to the era of more than a century ago, when elk found themselves eliminated from their natural range in Pennsylvania and the rest of the Northeast,” Game Commission Executive Director Carl Roe stated. “That turnaround is a reason for celebration.
“One hundred years later, there’s no arguing that elk restoration here in Pennsylvania has been about as successful as could possibly be expected,” Roe added. “It’s something every Pennsylvanian can be proud of.”