Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pennsylvania Elk

Since the 1970s I've made occasional trips to see and photograph the elk of Elk County, Pennsylvania. Back then both elk and tourists were scarce and those of us who visited the area didn't see many of either. Things have changed in recent years -- there are more elk (around 800) and, since the promotion of the elk herd as a tourist attraction, many more people.The increase in elk-tourism has made it much less pleasant to visit the area, but as long as the effort is made to get several miles from a road and the tourist-jams it's still a very worthwhile experience.

With the recent change in the weather from hot and humid to more autumnal conditions, it was time to go in search of elk. By arriving just after dawn, people were scarce and the elk tended to be out feeding in openings before retreating to denser cover. Then, toward dusk, a walk of several miles got me away from humans and closer to a number of elk.

The breeding bulls are every bit as impressive as their western counterparts -
 These two young bulls spent quite some time sparring -

Once upon a time -- before the arrival of European settlers -- elk inhabited all of what was to become Pennsylvania. The elk's primary habitat was probably extensive meadows along major rivers and streams that were created and maintained by Native American agriculture and the fires they set to improve hunting. With the coming of European settlers elk were intensively hunted with the last individuals apparently being found in Cameron County and (the appropriately named) Elk County -- before 1880 they were totally eliminated from the state.

The burgeoning interest in conservation in the early 1900s led to the re-introduction of elk to Pennsylvania in 1913; with most of the original stock coming from Yellowstone. Abandoned farms and regeneration of forests following the extensive logging of the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided excellent habitat and the animals appeared to prosper, leading to hunting seasons from 1923 until 1931. Then the population collapsed until only a few animals survived – once again in Cameron and Elk counties.

By the early 1970s the population numbered about 65 animals that appeared to be a nuisance to authorities as some were shot by farmers for crop damage, other were shot by poachers or “in mistake for deer”. But finally there was a change of heart and the elk were seen as an asset: a magnet for tourists and potential game animals. Forest management on public land was altered to improve elk habitat and open fields were created; with the improved habitat the herd has increased to about 800 animals and has spread beyond its core range.

 But, as the population increased so did the publicity surrounding the animals which were seen as opportunities for both "eco-tourism" and hunting. And so, viewing areas have been created for those who can't, or won't, view the elk in a more natural setting and a limited hunting season has been instituted.

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