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Elk-loving tourists drawn to watch 'wapiti'
BENZETTE, Pa. — Native Seneca tribes called them "wapiti," referring to their white rumps. German settlers thought they were "elch," or European moose. Modern elk watchers simply call them "spectacular."
"I brought the grandkids out to take a look," said Martin Grenet of Mercer.
A hundred yards across a grass field stood a 900-pound bull elk, 5 feet high at the shoulder, throwing back its massive antlers and bugling for a mate.
"We've seen deer, but this is something else. The kids will never forget it."
Pennsylvania's free-ranging herd is the easternmost wild elk population in the United States. Driven to regional extinction in the mid-1800s, the reintroduced elk are a landmark wildlife management success story, now thriving in a naturally reproducing population of some 950 animals spanning seven counties.
In 2010, a modern 8,500-square-foot elk-watching and conservation visitor center was opened in Benezette, north of DuBois in Elk County. With directional road signs and designated observation outlooks, viewable fields seeded to attract elk and a cottage industry catering to tourists, Pennsylvanians are discovering what they've got. A new live-streaming elk-cam puts the action on Winslow Hill within a mouse click of anyone with a computer (www.experienceelkcountry.com/elk-country-live-feed), and elk watching has become a growing part of a booming eco-tourism industry in the north central Pennsylvania Wilds.
A little perspective: A big Pennsylvania white-tailed deer can top 200 pounds and stand a little more than 3 feet high at the shoulder. A cow elk weighs 600 to 800 pounds. A bull can reach 1,000 pounds, its powerful shoulders more than 5 feet off the ground.
Elk are most visible during breeding season in September and October. During the rut, cows and their young are gathered into harems of 15 to 20 animals controlled by hormone-addled bulls who fight each other for reproductive supremacy. The herd bull aggressively circles its harem, grunting or bugling a low bellow that rises to a high-pitched squeal. When an interloper challenges, they face off in the field, slamming their antlers against each other in grinding battles that can last 10 minutes.
"And you can see this happening right in front of us," said Grenet. "This is just amazing."
Management: But it doesn't happen without human intervention. The state's last natural elk is believed to have been killed in the late 1860s. The Pennsylvania Game Commission began a reintroduction program in 1913. Through 1926, 177 elk were imported from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and a private preserve in Pennsylvania, and stocked in the heart of their former range.
"But it didn't take," said Jeremy Banfield, a wildlife biologist elk manager for the state Game Commission. "There were habitat problems to begin with, and once they began reproducing they were over-hunted again."
In 1934 there were 14 elk remaining in the state. Hunting was banned, but some farmers poached to prevent agricultural losses, and for decades state wildlife managers showed little interest in elk. A 1971 survey counted 65.
In 1998, however, the Game Commission and cooperative agencies and nonprofit conservation groups including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation tried again. A trap-and-transfer program coupled with public and private money and more informed management practices expanded the elk's range to more than 850 square miles, including state game lands that provided sustainable habitat. The population grew, and in 2001 a limited lottery-based conservation hunt was held.
"There's no part of Pennsylvania that hasn't been impacted by man," said Banfield. "Without natural predators and with massive habitat loss, it's up to humans to manage wildlife. There are a number of reasons we use regulated hunting to control the population."
In the 2014 elk license lottery, 108 licenses were issued and 88 elk were killed. This year, 27,592 applications were purchased at $10.70 each, raising more than $275,000 for wildlife management.
Benezette: No hunting is permitted around Benezette. With no predators of mature elk and no population control, the small hillside community can look like Mount Lebanon on steroids. Habituated elk with no fear of humans rest in front yards, lumber across roads and stand their ground when tourists get too close.
"People don't like to talk about it, but when a herd (of elk) go through your garden there's nothing left. And people, they stop in the middle of the road and walk right into your yard with cameras," said a homeowner who lives between Benezette and nearby Weedville. Dan asked that his last name be withheld to protect him from the scorn of neighbors. "Everybody's trying to make money from the tourists. And that's fine. But we pay a price for this."
Eco-tourism has become the region's driving economic generator. During the fall rut, it's not uncommon for 1,000 vehicles at a time to be parked at the Elk Country Visitor Center and nearby overlooks. Built near the top of Winslow Hill by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the center was erected on 245 acres using $6 million in tax dollars and $6 million in private-sector donations. The nonprofit Keystone Elk Country Alliance programs interactive exhibits, a surround-sound educational movie, a gift shop and walking trails. Attendance tops 200,000 per year.
Nearby, quaint restaurants, rustic hotels, wineries, a distillery and artisan shops have turned Pennsylvania elk watching into a choice daytrip about three hours northeast of Pittsburgh.
What to do: Inside the LEED-certified visitor center, interactive exhibits, historical data and a well-produced surround-sound movie ($3 for adults) thoroughly explain why the elk are there and how they live. Short walking trails lead from the center to fields where elk often gather during the rut. A short drive from the center, several observation vistas offer additional views. Bring binoculars or spotting scopes.
What not to do: These are wild and free-ranging animals; there is no guarantee the elk will be where you are. Don't approach elk or try to take selfies. They're not pets or zoo animals. They don't want you to come close. Don't stop the car or pull off the road when you spot elk — it's illegal and dangerous. Don't walk into residents' yards to get a better picture. How would you like it?