Majestic wild bull elk can now be heard bugling each fall in six northcentral counties, including Centre. That eerie sound echoing from the multi-hued autumn mountains attracts thousands of wildlife watchers each September and October. Limited-permit hunting and a habitat initiative involving many public and private partners has helped the herd to grow during each of the past 20 years.
These partnerships have helped the elk in a number of different ways, including research, land acquisition, habitat creation and maintenance; as well as the purchase of machinery, seed, lime and fertilizer. This also includes building and staffing the visitors center and erecting fencing to keep the elk away from problem areas.
Jeremy Banfield, elk biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), is currently writing the next management plan for this state’s elk herd. It is due to the Commission in 2015. This plan will direct the future of the Keystone State’s elk herd for the next ten years.
The PGC’s current 12 hunt zones, as well as the “open zone” to the west, comprise about half of the potential territory included in the Commission’s Elk Management Area in Centre, Clearfield, Cameron, Clinton, Elk and Potter counties. The other half of the acreage lies to the north and east with Routes 6 and 287 as boundaries and Wellsboro in the northeastern corner. All of Centre County north of I-80 is included in this area. Based on the land available to elk, it would be easy to assume that the herd could possibly double, but Banfield says that it is more complicated than that.
“Elk will never exist where there is poor habitat. Good habitat, not just square miles of forest, is the biggest key for elk,” Banfield explained. “We know that elk need herbaceous openings, and working with our partners, we have done much of that where the elk are now. However, the second piece of the puzzle — early successional forest habitat — is still missing in a lot of places. Elk need browse, particularly during the winter months, and that comes from early successional habitat. Habitat diversity and the browse component of habitat are good for elk, deer, grouse and many other species.
“For example, in elk hunt zone 4 [mostly Cameron County], we have a lot of private land that has been heavily timbered. The elk love it. I don’t have any problems with those elk. They stay up in those clearcuts and they don’t bother anybody. They are not down in the valley munching on people’s lawns,” Banfield added. “I am approaching the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation about an aspen cutting to create early-successional habitat within the Moshannon State Forest.”
Rawley Cogan, CEO of the Keystone Country Elk Alliance (KCEA), agreed that winter elk forage in the valleys is often at a premium. Another answer is planting late season grasses.
“We have helped to plant reed canary grass as a winter food. It has a stiff stem and can handle the snow load without being knocked down. We hope that this will help to attract the elk away from towns.”
The Pennsylvania Game Commission would like the elk herd to expand its range to the east and north from its current location. This area has the least private land, and therefore, less opportunity for human-elk conflict. The largest landowner in this area is, by far, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
Banfield sees two ways to grow the elk herd.
“We’d like to encourage elk to expand to the north and east, but there is also a drive to create more habitat where there already are populations. We can increase some of these smaller sub-populations.
“DCNR’s support is paramount. They are the major landowner. Collaboration with that agency and our private partners is going to be the key to the expansion of the elk herd,” Banfield noted. “DCNR has a different mission than the Game Commission — wildlife is only a part of their multi-use mission. We need to find a balance between their needs and our needs.”
Dan Devlin, Deputy Secretary for DCNR’s Bureau of Parks and Forestry, considers his agency to be in partnership with the Commission.
“We have always considered the elk herd a good thing,” Devlin said. “We are working closely with the Game Commission to enhance habitat for elk where they already are, particularly in the Sproul State Forest in Clinton and northern Centre County.”
Regarding the outright creation of new habitat to entice the elk to the northeast, Devlin was hesitant.
“We would like to see exactly what the Game Commission might have in mind before I answer that,” Devlin said. “We are interested in working in areas where the elk are already showing up rather than encouraging an expansion east. We are the major land manager in the elk range, so I know that our partnership is critical.”
Devlin had high praise for his private partners.
“The National Wild Turkey Federation has been a long-standing habitat partner, and we’re doing lots of habitat work with them,” he said. “We meet with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation annually to discuss possible habitat projects, and of course, we have a very close relationship with Keystone Country Elk Alliance. The Alliance runs our elk visitors center.”
The Snow Shoe sub-population of 30 to 40 elk is only about 12 miles west of Bald Eagle State Park. Will we ever see elk in the popular Centre County park?
“Let’s just say that there are still some hurdles there,” Devlin remarked.
Private partners have been involved in helping the elk in many ways.
Reed Johnson, president of the 120-member Susquehanna Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), knows that plantings to aid elk also benefit wild turkeys, so his chapter has participated in a big way.
“We started working with DCNR in 1980 to create more herbaceous openings in the Moshannon State Forest and then really increased our support since 1992. We have since helped the [DCNR] Bureau of Forestry to purchase tractors, harrows, plows, a lime spreader and a seeder,” Johnson detailed. “We have also supplied seed, lime and fertilizer to the Game Commission, DCNR and private coal companies in the Karthaus and Frenchville areas. Last year, our chapter bought an entire truckload of winter wheat seed that created wildlife food on over 385 acres.”
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has also been involved in many ways over a long span of time. Tom Toman, Director of Science and Planning for RMEF, outlined some of his organization’s work.
“We helped to train DCNR and PGC personnel about how to trap and move elk. We also helped to purchase State Game Lands 311 and the Woodring property near Benezette, as well as others. In total, the foundation has spent over $1.5 million just on habitat projects and much more on land acquisition that directly benefits Pennsylvania elk.”
Cogan hopes that recent research funded by the Keystone Country Elk Allaince will help direct how the conservation group can best spend its money.
“We funded the GPS/camera collar that was worn by a cow elk earlier this year. The data from the collar will tell us exactly where she was every 15 minutes and the 30 second video clips will tell us exactly what she was eating,” Cogan explained. “I hope that the data from the collar will be a stepping stone to help move forward with habitat improvement and help us be as efficient as possible with our money.”
KCEA manages the Elk Visitors Center and maintains over 100 acres of herbaceous food plots surrounding the center. Like the NWTF, KCEA has focused some of its efforts on private land because the Game Commission and DCNR cannot do that. This has included, building an elk and deer deterrent fence at the St. Joseph Catholic Church in the town of Force.
“Some private landowners have a tremendous land ethic, but they are short on cash. We can help with that,” Cogan said.