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A Pennsylvania Township Cashes In on Its Big Bucks

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The love affair with the elk is on the rocks.

It’s not that folks have truly stopped caring in this town that has more elk (320) than people (243). A gossip who asks, “Know who’s pregnant?” may well be referring to a shaggy cow; and one bull, Old Bill, was honored with a chain-saw artist’s statue after a train killed him.

“I felt a special bond with him,” says Ron Rishel, the sawmill owner who commissioned the statue.

It’s not so much the elk that are the problem, folks will tell you. It’s the herds of tourists who come to see them.

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The local elk herd, the second-largest east of the Mississippi River (behind Michigan’s) and one of a handful that game officials in the eastern United States are nurturing, is now thriving.

Elk were reintroduced in Pennsylvania in 1926, 60 years after hunters killed off the state herd.

Benezette Township, about a third of the way from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, is a place of hunting camps with names like Wife Dodgers and Lost World. It has a history of coal mining and logging, not tourism.

But now visitors feel they’re in Yellowstone Park as elk stroll through backyards and stop traffic, residents complain. Some locals are tacking “No Trespassing” signs on trees this spring to get ready for people who tramp across lawns for a better view.

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“People forget their manners. I go ask them if they know that they’re on private property, and it’s like they don’t even hear me,” retiree Maynard Woodring says.

He lives along rutted Winslow Hill Road, where about 3,000 carloads of elk watchers crept last Labor Day weekend. That’s around the start of peak season, when tourists come to hear bull elk bugling for mates.

The road leads to an overlook above a valley reputed to be a good spot for herd-spotting.

The passing cars infuriate Chuck David, a former coal miner whose retirement home gets clouded in dust. He may even move.

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“Sometimes we can’t even get the mail up here, the road gets so bad. And forget about the newspaper,” he says.

It would cost $500,000 to fix the ruts and pave the road, and that’s five times the township budget, says Matt Elder, a township supervisor. Rock was laid as a temporary fix, but a plea to the state for more help yielded nothing.

Not everybody has fallen out of love with the elk. For business, the animals are big bucks.

Elk County, which includes Benezette, aggressively promotes the herd, and innkeepers direct guests to elk haunts. A local souvenir shop sells elk T-shirts and the $14.99 Sexy Cow Elk Call.

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“With the elk, our business is better than hunting season anymore,” shop manager Linda Tuttle said. “That’s saying a lot.”

A brief elk-hunting season is a possibility someday, but the state Game Commission would need the Legislature’s approval for that.

And talk of hunting brings up the story of a bull named Screamer, who trapped a group of deer hunters in their camp by screaming at them and circling menacingly as they tried to leave.

Rishel, the sawmill owner, fears a tourist may be gored or trampled by an elk, which as adults weigh as much as a meat freezer. The elk sometimes nuzzle Rishel’s prize show horses but can get mean in a hurry.

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“I had one lady right out in the front yard, maybe 30 feet from a bull. I ran up and threw down my hat and scared him off,” he says. “She was all over me, but I said, ‘Lady, do you know how close you came to being killed?’ ”

Benezette townspeople worry that tourists may be lulled into a false sense of security around elk by their experiences with deer, which are timid by comparison. The recommended viewing distance for elk is 100 yards.

Feeding the animals is illegal and led to a $100 fine for one man last year. Also forbidden is stopping a car in the middle of the road to watch elk, which often happens on state Route 555, police said.

The state Game Commission is trying to ease the burden. Thirty elk were moved this winter to a pen in central Pennsylvania. They were released in March to graze on the state’s largest contiguous tract of public land, in and around Sproul State Forest.

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“There’s a whole lot of nothing up there for them to get into,” explains Bruce Whitman, a commission spokesman. More will be trapped and moved next year.

The lessons of Benezette might be useful elsewhere in the East where wildlife officials and biologists are trying to nurture elk herds, which thrived before unregulated hunting wiped them out.

Kentucky imported 200 elk from Utah; Wisconsin has a small herd near Lake Superior.

Michigan already has 1,075 elk. There, said Brent Manning, a board member at the International Assn. of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, “a bunch of small towns . . . all call themselves ‘The Elk Capital of Michigan,’ which I think is wonderful.”

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Kevin Lackey of the Missoula, Mont.-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation added: “People are taking a look back at what they once had, and they want it back.”

But Woodring, the Benezette Township retiree, has his doubts.

He used to grow corn but gave up because elk ate it all. Planting trees is futile. Saplings are treats for animals that eat the equivalent of 15 pounds of salad each day.


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