Earlier this year, following the recommendation of Pennsylvania Game Commission elk biologist Jeremy Banfield, the commissioners approved a new Elk Hunt Zone — EHZ 13. The zone encompasses a total of 178,475 acres in Clinton and Centre counties. In Centre County, all or parts of Boggs, Burnside, Curtin, Liberty and Snow Shoe townships are included.
The commissioners also approved two antlered elk and three antlerless permits for EHZ 13.
“This is a conservative number for this area, and the number of permits might grow, particularly if we get landowner complaints,” Banfield said. “The number of permits allocated for each hunt zone is dependent on the elk population and the number of human-elk conflicts. With respect to the population, the distribution of those elk is more important than the total population.”
According to Banfield, wild elk first took up residence in Centre County on State Game Lands 100, near Snow Shoe, in 2012. Nine bulls were counted there in 2013, and there was a mixed group of 40 bulls and cows counted in 2014. It is believed that this sub-herd of elk moved south from SGL 321 near Pottersdale.
“This new sub-population of elk is growing, so there is no reason why there can’t be a limited hunt there this November,” Banfield explained. “Last winter, the minimum elk count for that area was 48, and that was before this year’s calving, so the current total number is likely to be well over 50.”
Elk were recently reported on farmland near Yarnell, just north of I-80. Banfield had not heard about these reports, but if the elk stay on the farmland, he knows that he will be likely to hear about them sooner or later in the form of a complaint.
“If this is true, then that marks the farthest east that elk have been seen in Pennsylvania,” Banfield noted. “Elk and farms don’t mix very well. A farmer might enjoy seeing them at first, but that novelty will wear off when the crop damage adds up. Our goal is to keep the elk away from I-80 and out of Marsh Creek Valley.”
To that end, many elk-friendly habitat improvements are occurring on SGL 100 and in Sproul State Forest. Cliff Guindon, Commission Land Management Supervisor for the agency’s northcentral region, and Sproul District Forester Doug D’Amore are excited about the prospects and the improvements that are being planned or already completed.
Superior Pipeline Company is currently constructing a natural gas pipeline to link fracking wells in operation near Snow Shoe, with the Texas Eastern and Dominion pipelines, approximately two miles north of Orviston, in Beech Creek Township, Clinton County. D’Amore and Guindon see this pipeline as a key to encouraging the elk to move northeast, rather than south.
“The 100-foot-wide pipeline will be seeded with an elk mix when it is finished,” D’Amore stated. “We hope that the pipeline will be the highway that leads the elk northeast and deeper into Sproul State Forest. We are planting food plots adjacent to the pipeline to hold the elk once they arrive. Our strategy includes creating early successional habitat and planting evergreens for thermal cover.”
Mine reclamation continues on State Game Lands 100 north of Clarence, and bio-solids are being used to achieve a lush growth of herbaceous plants.
“We are taking small bites out of the huge pie of abandoned mines,” Guindon commented. “Our work has recently included pushing down old highwalls, improving water quality and replanting the surface. We are also preparing the soil to receive natural seeding, and in other areas, we have made border cuttings, aspen plantings and early-successional habitat cuts. We now have over 300 acres of herbaceous openings on SGL 100. Our goal is to make it attractive to the elk.”
Controlled burns are also in the works for SGL 100.
“We have a burn plan approved that included joint controlled burns with DCNR on the Sproul State Forest,” Guindon added. “We are in the process of altering the plan to include rotational burns on the warm and cool season grasses on State Game Lands 100.”
A total of 118 elk permits are to be awarded for this fall’s hunt. This includes the 95 antlerless and 21 antlered elk permits that will be assigned during the drawing on Aug. 15, at the Elk Country Visitor Center. The so called, “Governor’s bull tag,” was auctioned off earlier by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and another bull tag will be drawn by the Keystone Elk Country Alliance as a raffle prize on Aug. 16.
Even with the addition of EHZ 13, the total number of bull elk tags this year is 23 — down from 29 in 2014. According to Banfield, this reflects the lower numbers of bulls identified during the 2015 winter count.
“Some people are concerned about this drop and what it might mean, but there is no cause for alarm,” Banfield emphasized. “Three low bull counts in a row might mean something, but not just for one year. We are simply being conservative with our permits.”
D’Amore summed up the state of his agency’s partnership with the Game Commission and other conservation organizations, such as the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Wild Turkey Federation.
“Through a cooperative effort, we have been working to expand the elk herd in Sproul State Forest for close to 20 years,” he said. “We are fortunate to have progressed to a spot where we have lots of options. The saying, ‘Build it and they will come,’ is true in this case. Ten years ago, this would not have worked. Now, individuals and organizations have a chance to see immediate results for their efforts.”