Elk Make a Comeback in Pennsylvania : Conservation: The state nurtures a formerly extinct natural resource for posterity and as a tourist attraction. Its herd is one of two east of the Mississippi River.
The thumping of a hovering helicopter shatters the peace of the rugged landscape in north-central Pennsylvania and sends a herd of female elk and their offspring scrambling along the hillside below.
About 50 yards away, a bull elk appears--1,000 pounds of muscle with sweeping antlers nearly 4 feet across.
“He’s coming to protect them,” the pilot says over the headset as the chopper pauses briefly above the treetops.
Indeed, the dominant bull’s presence appears to calm the herd as the helicopter slowly circles the ridge on a sunny afternoon.
Similar scenes are played out annually, as crews from Pennsylvania’s Game Commission and Bureau of Forestry conduct a census of Pennsylvania’s small but stable elk herd.
At last count, the news was good. There are 154 elk now, the most since the state started counting them in the early 1970s. Through most of the last decade, there were between 120 and 140 animals.
In Colonial times, elk roamed over much of the state, but human settlement, development and commercial hunting had driven the native elk to extinction by 1867.
The current herd was started in 1913, when the Game Commission placed some Rocky Mountain elk in north-central Pennsylvania and in the Pocono Mountains of the northeast. The Pocono herd died out, leaving the only elk in the state confined to an area of about 200 square miles in Elk and Cameron counties.
There are many elk in the West, where hunting them is popular, but Pennsylvania’s is the smaller of two herds east of the Mississippi. The other, larger herd in the East is in Michigan.
Bill Drake of the Game Commission, who supervised the census from a hangar at Saint Marys Airport, said: “For Pennsylvanians, elk are pretty impressive. They’re not only large, but they’re graceful and they’re beautiful.”
The small size of the elk range allows the searchers to concentrate their efforts, but without snow on the ground, getting an accurate count is impossible. The animals stand out against a backdrop of snow, and their tracks and beds are easier to spot. The rest of the year, their brown and tan hides blend with the forest floor.
Last year, unseasonably warm weather prompted cancellation of the census. This year, some snow aided visibility at the start, but it was melting quickly, so the crews had to step up the pace.
Drake plotted the progress on a big wall map, keeping in touch with the crews by radio and telephone. It wasn’t easy. There was a report that three large bulls were seen in a field several miles away. That needed to be confirmed by game wardens before the animals could be added to the count.
“Is there anything we can do to find those three?” Drake asked. “We can use every elk we can find.”
He predicted a count of 171, but was resigned to the probability that some animals would be missed.
It is frustrating work. One ground crew reported finding three fresh beds, but saw only two bulls. They debated for a few minutes before Drake said, quietly but firmly, that he wouldn’t count an elk that no one saw.
The state also counts the number of elk that have died, about 13 in an average year. In 1989, the mortality count was 10. Five elk, including one found with its antlers removed by chain saw, had been killed illegally; two were killed by farmers protecting their crops; one had died of unknown causes, and another, a victim of a much smaller foe--had starved with porcupine quills in its mouth.
Hunters are not allowed to take elk in Pennsylvania, but Drake and others acknowledged that regulated hunting is not out of the question in the future. They are quiet about it. In the early 1980s, when the commission publicly said there might be an elk hunt, farmers and poachers jumped the gun and killed 26 elk illegally in one year.
“They thought if we had trouble with too many elk, they’d handle it locally, rather than let people come in and hunt from outside the county,” Drake said. “That’s what we think happened.”
A local elk committee has been set up to keep farmers, sportsmen and the Game Commission informed of illegal kills. To draw elk away from farms, some public land has been clear-cut to provide food for the herd.
The herd has become a tourist attraction in recent years, and Mark Rupprecht, owner of Elk County Ammo and Arms, knows where they gather.
In the fall, for instance, a motorist can see as many as 60 elk in a field just outside town. “There’s a lot of traffic out there,” Rupprecht said. “It’s hard to get a parking space.”
Drake added: “If we can maintain elk, it’s kind of an indication that we still have some areas in Pennsylvania that have a pristine quality of environment.”