Friday, September 3, 2010

Pennsylvania Hamlet Benezette About To Draw Attention For Elk

From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Benezette will never be the center of the universe.


But try telling yourself that if you happen to be driving through the Elk County community on a Saturday night next month. The town is home to fewer than 300 full-time residents, according to U.S. Census data. But traffic will be heavy for the next two months, especially on weekends, as wildlife watchers from all over show up to get a look at Pennsylvania's elk.

The herd totals about 700 animals. In the no-hunt zone surrounding the town, habituated if not tame elk wander the streets, as likely to be grazing the post office lawn as one of the many reclaimed strip mines-turned-food-plots built for them.

September and, to a lesser extent October, when the "rut" or mating season is in swing, is prime time to see elk. Bulls weighing close to 1,000 pounds and sporting antlers big enough to rank among the largest in the world will be at their most visible, shepherding harems of cows around or trying to steal them from others. All the while, they'll be bugling, sending high-pitched, wavering calls into the air.

Dave Morris, executive director of the Northwest Pa. Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau, did not return either of two phone calls seeking information on how many people travel to see the elk.

But there's no doubt it's a large number and has been growing, especially in the last decade, said Dan Surra, a lifelong Elk County resident and director of the Pennsylvania Wilds, a tourism initiative. "You can go up there any night in the fall and see license plates from eight or 10 states," Surra said. "The elk are just a phenomenal animal and you can see them pretty up close and personal. It's like when you go into Yellowstone and see bison for the first time. It's a great experience."

Elk are native to the state, but had disappeared by the mid-1800s due to human settlement and unregulated hunting. In an effort to bring them back, the Pennsylvania Game Commission imported elk from outside the state in 1913. Some took root, but for of the next 80 or so years, the herd never topped 100 animals, as the pace at which farmers shot elk for crop damage matched reproduction.

Ultimately, though, thanks to efforts to fence elk out of agricultural fields, create habitat on public land and move elk into new areas, the herd grew to range over six counties: Elk, Clearfield, Cameron, Clinton, Potter and Centre.

There's still room for the herd to grow, too, said Jon DeBerti, elk biologist for the Game Commission. Whether it will be allowed to remains uncertain. "We don't have a numbers goal. Because when you look at this, a lot of it is driven by sociological issues. It's not a biological issue. It's like with bears, it's what society will tolerate," he said.

Right now, the elk are a draw, and new infrastructure reflects that. Twenty years ago, elk seekers traveled over narrow dirt roads and found nowhere to pull off their cars, no signs and no restrooms, Surra said.

Today, there are parking areas and official elk viewing sites and, as of this fall, a new Elk Country Visitor Center. Being built through a partnership between the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Elk Country Alliance, the 8,420-square-foot visitor center promises to be the "largest elk watching and conservation education facility in the eastern United States," said DCNR Secretary John Quigley. No opening date has been announced and Rawley Cogan, director of the Alliance, could not be reached for comment. But the center figures to be another piece of the puzzle that has seen the state's elk herd go from novelty to attraction.

"It's been a little bit of a slow transformation, but the elk are so popular that our goal next is to disperse people because we get so many," Surra said.

Guide to elk watching

If you're thinking of visiting Pennsylvania's elk range, be sure to first download a copy of the state's official elk viewing guide. It provides directions and a map to the best elk viewing sites, gives tips on when you might most likely see them - typically early and late in the day - offers advice on elk-viewing etiquette and gives a lot of information on places to stay and eat and other things to do while in the area.

The guide can be downloaded here or is available by calling 814-849-5197.

And don't be surprised if you see elk sporting collars. Those are animals the Game Commission is following. The goal, said commission biologist Jon DeBerti, is to see where the animals — and yearling elk in particular — are spending their time throughout the year.

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