By Joe Kosack, Wildlife Education Specialist - Eastern elk once ranged statewide, but colonization and exploitation by European settlers eventually led to the species’ demise. Prior to the arrival of European immigrants, elk were found from northern New York to central Georgia. Pennsylvania’s largest elk concentrations are believed to have been in the Allegheny Mountains. Elk, or wapitis as they were called by native Americans, were doggedly pursued wherever they could be found in colonial Penn’s Woods. They were chased with dogs, jack-lighted, tracked whenever snow provided a trail, and shot on sight.
Elk were exterminated in southeastern Pennsylvania and rare west of the Allegheny River and in the Blue Ridge and Cumberland mountains by the opening of the nineteenth century. By the late 1840s, they were gone in the southwestern Pennsylvania and from the Pocono Plateau. By the 1850s, what remained of Pennsylvania's once mighty elk population was limited to sections of northcentral Pennsylvania, predominantly in Cameron, Elk and McKean counties.
In the mid 1860s, Pennsylvania's last few native elk were still roaming in Elk and Cameron counties. Within a few years, though, they would be gone. The last two reports of elk being hunted include one supposedly taken not far from St. Marys by an Indian named Jim Jacobs. Historical accounts suggest the elk was pursued for several days before it made its last stand in Flag Swamp, near the Clarion River. A second was said to have been taken by a hunter named John D. Decker in 1877 in Centre County. However, it appears the species was certainly extirpated from the state by the late 1870s, and more than likely, earlier.
The creation of the Game Commission in 1895 paved the way for an ambitious effort to replenish and provide additional protection to many of the state’s dangerously low wildlife populations. Deer, turkeys and quail topped the list of game animals the agency bought and released. In 1912, the Game Commissioners and agency Executive Secretary Joseph Kalbfus began talking about re-introducing elk in Pennsylvania. The idea stemmed from a federal government effort to reduce the mushrooming elk herds at Yellowstone National Park and the Jackson Hole Refuge Area, preserves that were protecting the remnants of America's once-mighty elk population. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Biological Survey and Department of Forestry, unwilling to sanction a hunt for the overabundant animals, opted to translocate some and winter feed the rest.
Kalbfus wrote in his 1912 annual report, "It now appears that the herds of elk found upon the public domain of the far West are annually subjected to severe suffering and death by starvation because of the limitation and taking for agricultural purposes of their winter feeding grounds, and that ... the national government is anxious to reduce the western herds by placing numbers of these animals elsewhere to their benefit, the cost to those receiving such animals being only the expense incurred in their capture and transportation..."
"I believe it would be well to locate the elk that may be received upon those of our preserves located upon the largest tracts of our state forest lands as far as possible from cultivated lands, and as near the center of the state as may be, in this way giving the animals as great range as possible, and at the same time reduce to the minimum the danger of injury to growing crops by these animals and the possibility of their wandering out of our jurisdiction."
In 1913, Pennsylvania's first shipment of Yellowstone elk arrived by train. The 50 elk cost about $30 each. Half of the Wyoming wapiti shipment went to Clinton County, the other half to Clearfield County. An additional 22 elk were bought from a Monroe County preserve that year. Twelve were released on state lands in Monroe County and the remainder on a Centre County preserve.
To ensure the preservation of elk being released, the General Assembly in 1913 enacted a law protecting them until November 15, 1921, when a two-week elk season would be held. Bulls with at least four points to one antler were identified in the law as legal game for the distant season.
To be honest, it’s amazing the Yellowstone elk survived to serve as the nucleus of Pennsylvania’s resurrected elk herd. Hauled across America by trains to locations principally selected through political deliberations, the elk were chased off the boxcars into the wild without any acclimation period. The terrain they bounded into was vastly different, the vegetation unfamiliar. Consequently, the "hard release" approach used at that time by the Game Commission fell considerably short of providing the desired results.
Shortly after they were released, the elk began to wander in search of food and cover, to distance themselves from the trains that delivered them, to seek out areas where human activity was limited. Within a week, some had traveled as far as 40 miles away from the release sites.
In 1915, barely two years after the first elk were released, the Game Commission bought 95 more from Yellowstone. They were released in six counties: Cameron, 24; Carbon, 24; Potter, 24; Forest, 10; Blair, 7; and Monroe, 6.
Many people considered the elk reintroduction program a step in the right direction, but farmers weren't among them. The big animals, they found, were very destructive in agricultural areas.
"When the farmers complained," former Game Commissioner John M. Phillips reflected, "we went into Centre County and found where a band of elk had been raiding a cornfield at night and had destroyed every ear in the field by biting about two inches off the end. They seemed to like the silk."
The state's elk population slowly increased in most areas they were released in, despite illegal harvests by poachers and farmers who refused to ignore the elk ravaging their fields. Hunters relished the idea of hunting them. Farmers cursed as they surveyed their latest losses. Tension was building.
As the Teens closed, the Game Commission was looking at the possibility of killing troublesome elk in Blair and Monroe counties. Monroe County farmers, however, took matters into their own hands before the Game Commission chose a course of action.
Citing farmers for killing elk causing crop damage was something Game Commission officials wanted to avoid. They believed the farmers were entitled to compensation for their losses and petitioned legislators to address the issue.
"Our effort to secure an appropriation through which to pay for [crop] damages done by ... protected wild creatures resulted in failure, many of the members of the Legislature refusing to support this position because, as they said, of the disposition of many farmers and fruit growers to present exaggerated claims, and the almost utter impossibility upon the part of the Game Commission to refute the claim as made," wrote Kalbfus in 1917. "The chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations told me personally that he could not support this bill for the above reasons, and in addition said, ‘If this is done a precedent will have been established that will cost the state untold money.’"
Elk were prospering everywhere. There was no reason to suspect they wouldn't, especially after they moved into the rich farming areas bordering big woods. Hunters and nature lovers marveled at the large timid beasts. People were flocking to wherever elk could be found to take pictures and feed them.
Tempers cooled in agricultural areas when the first bull elk season was held in 1923, two years later than it originally was scheduled for. During the season, hunters could not conduct organized drives for elk, which was the most common way hunters pursued big game such as deer and bear. "Still hunting," or stalking, was the only legal way bull elk could be hunted. Persons who failed to comply were subject to a $100 fine. Only bulls with four or more points to at least one antler were legal game.
During the first season hunters took 23 legal bulls. Over the next three years, 25 more were taken. In 1927, hunters harvested 26 bulls marking the state's best harvest since the reintroduction.
The high-water mark for elk harvest was 1927. Never again would an annual harvest come close to two dozen elk. In 1930, the bull elk harvest dropped to five, sparking concern among sportsmen. The following year one bull was taken in what would become Pennsylvania's last elk hunting season.
The hunting seasons no doubt made a dent in the state’s scattered elk herd. Losses to hunting, poaching and those relocated or shot because of nuisance complaints all played a role in the ensuing decline that occurred.
Records indicate that by 1930 elk were once again restricted to that area of Cameron and Elk counties where the state's last native elk had made their final stand. As recently as 1928, though, the Game Commission deliberated whether to kill two troublesome elk in Carbon County. Crude estimates, which were rarely conservative, suggested the Cameron and Elk counties herd numbered in excess of 200 animals. The elk in all the other release areas were gone.
Elk faded out of the spotlight in the ‘40s. World War II was a tough act to top. But in the ‘50s, they began drawing attention again. In 1952, Pennsylvania Game News reported, "Today's elk population probably numbers less than 50," a proclamation that surely turned some heads. A year later, the agency considered restocking elk after several were shot in mistake for deer. The commissioners, however, eventually chose not to.
From the early 1930s to the early 1970s, the Game Commission did very little with the state's remnant elk herd, which reportedly numbered between 24 and 70 head during that period. They maintained a stronghold in the Dents Run and Hicks Run areas of Elk County. Many residents in Elk and Cameron counties, however, enjoyed the elk. So did visiting hunters. They were something special to observe in the forest; a sight that widened eyes and quickened blood. Elk affected people that way. They were a unique resource.
In the 1960s, elk began making trips into farming areas northwest of their stomping grounds in Dents and Hicks runs. It appeared to be in response to either an increase in herd size or change in habitat. The Game Commission seemed inclined to believe it was a habitat deficiency, because its biologists speculated the herd was suffering from suppressed reproduction.
In 1967, agency biologist Harvey Roberts suggested: "Due to the fact that we have never studied our elk herd, little or nothing is known concerning limiting factors, etc. I can only hazard the guess that the habitat is sub-marginal and, as a result, somehow depresses reproductive capacity. This theory probably is not too far-fetched, in view of the fact that the forebears of our present herd came from the Yellowstone area. Had some of our original eastern elk survived as breeding stock, the current status might be entirely different.
"Each year, several calves are produced which is far below the reproductive potential of this size herd in a natural environment. This annual increase is usually offset by the illegal removal of an equal number of adults, thereby creating a static condition.
"Unfortunately we know nothing concerning age or sex structure. The effects of disease and parasites are totally unknown. In short, we're pretty much in the dark concerning these animals. With more pressing problems, there is little likelihood that we'll have the manpower or the money to inaugurate a study."
By 1970, farmers began to actively pursue relief from the invading elk. Some sought compensation for losses or implementation of artificial feeding programs. Others suggested fences. Along with the outcry for assistance came a proposal by the Cameron County Soil and Water Conservation District and the North Central Pennsylvania Economic Development Corporation to establish a 10,000-acre elk management area in Elk and Cameron counties. The thrust of the proposal was tourism and economics. It called for everything from habitat improvements and winter feeding and annual censuses and observation posts and, if necessary, limited elk hunts.
The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs joined the discussion. "We think it's time the ‘Top Brass’ of the Game Commission takes an interest in solving this problem," wrote John Wegemer, Secretary, Elk County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs in a 1970 letter to Game Commission Executive Director Glenn Bowers. "Either pay for the crop damage or fence in the elk or perhaps fence in the farmers cornfields. One other solution has been mentioned that may be worth a try. There are a few abandoned farms in the area which could be planted just for these animals, perhaps they would leave the farmers alone. It might be worth a try!"
Raymond H. Morningstar, the agency’s northcentral division supervisor, wrote in a 1970 memo to Bowers, "Public opinion would be greatly against shooting the elk, except for a few farmers, but if this herd gets much larger perhaps a limited number of permits to kill bulls could be issued.
"It is my personal belief that the elk herd is as large or perhaps larger than it need be and, so far, they are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. I am sure you are aware that regardless of the available food, elk are inclined to roam extensively... Even people who are familiar with their haunts find it difficult sometimes to even sight some of these animals. Since it can never be possible to have an open season on elk, it seems foolish to me to try to provide habitat that would tend to increase the population."
The debate over elk came to a head at an October 1970 meeting in Emporium. The meeting, which attracted governmental officials, legislators, farmers and hunters quickly became a sounding board for disgruntled farmers and ambitious planners. Dr. Maurice Goddard pointed out at the meeting that five deer could live off the food needed for one elk, and wondered if the sportsmen would approve such a sacrifice. Other officials suggested doing something to sustain or promote growth of the elk population.
Bowers wasted little time at the meeting explaining the Game Commission's position on the discussed topics. In regards to the elk tourism attraction/management area, he noted that sportsmen's dollars shouldn't be committed to a "Chamber of Commerce-type program." His remarks about crop damage were more pointed. "It's time we generated a realistic feeling toward these elk," he said. "Some people feel they are sacred. A person who suffers elk damage has every right, morally and legally, to kill an elk."
Prior to this Bowers' statement, farmers thought it was illegal to shoot elk for crop damage. That assumption quickly changed. Farmers shot several bull elk in a matter of days after the meeting and residents became indignant. Talk of the herd being exterminated by farmers spread like wildfire. It appeared some sort of management initiative was going to be needed to satisfy growing public concern for elk. The Game Commission pledged to do habitat improvement work beneficial to elk. It also became more actively involved in an elk study being headed by Dr. John L. George, the professor of wildlife management at Pennsylvania State University.
The Penn State study, implemented in 1970 with help from the Game Commission, Department of Forests and Waters and North Central Pennsylvania Economic Development District, focused on the elk herd's ecology, population dynamics, movements and other biological factors. Lack of funding would eventually lead to the study's demise in 1974, but the research provided the first in-depth look at the elk herd and became the cornerstone for Pennsylvania's elk data base.
The first elk census, conducted in 1971 under the Penn State study, showed there were about 65 animals. Prior to that, estimates of the herd's size ranged from 25 to 500, depending upon whom you talked to. Census figures show the herd started to decline in 1973. Brain worm was suspected as the cause. A year later, the population dipped to 38, marking a 50 percent drop in size over a two-year period. Then the herd rebounded. It increased by an annual average of 20 percent until it hit 135 in 1981.
The brain worm problem afflicting elk during the mid '70s was diagnosed by Penn State researchers through necropsies on carcasses. Elk beset by the stringy worm became incapacitated and very approachable. Death followed. The worm, typically acquired by elk when they ingest snails and slugs while feeding on grass, damages the central nervous system and brain. The parasite is commonly found in whitetails, but poses no threat to them.
Brain worm apparently has not been a severe problem for the elk herd since 1973-74. From 1975 to 2000, no more than five elk are known to have died from brain worm in any year. Over this 25-year period, the leading causes of death in the herd were elk taken illegally and those shot for crop damage.
In 1976, the Game Commission expanded its meager elk management efforts. First, it developed an elk policy directing the agency, in cooperation with the then Department of Environmental Resources' Bureau of Forestry to improve the elk range on state lands in Elk and Cameron counties.
"Habitat protection, manipulation and expansion wherever possible are important to elk management," stated the policy. "Therefore habitat manipulation such as timber harvests and selective land clearings to create food strips should receive added emphasis..."
The cooperative arrangement with DER did not mark the beginning of land management for elk by either agency. Both began experimenting with habitat improvements in the early '70s. Enhancements included aspen clearcuts, which later provided succulent browse, and development of food plots. After the agency alliance was formed, however, a more significant amount of habitat improvement occurred on state lands within the range. In addition, strip-mined areas were reclaimed in the herd's primary stomping grounds. This reversal of deteriorating range conditions had a very positive effect on the elk.
Researchers do not know exactly why the elk herd increased from 38 to 135 animals from 1973 to 1981. But they have some pretty good hunches. Habitat improvements appear to have helped by somewhat concentrating daily movements and reducing elk encounters with civilization. Some people also speculate that dry weather during the eight-year span may have suppressed snail populations, thus reducing the occurrence of brain worm in the herd. Others believe the presence of researchers and a growing number of elk enthusiasts in the area discouraged illegal activities. It's also important to note that census refinements during this period without question increased the proficiency of counters to find elk and no doubt led to the discovery of previously uncounted elk. Overall, it appears the increase was the product of several activities and changes.
But all of that changed briefly in the summer of 1982 when the Game Commission announced it was going to hold a lottery to pick 30 people who would be permitted to kill a Pennsylvania elk. Word of the proposed hunt, planned for either late 1983 or early 1984, spread like wildfire. Getting the chance to take a Pennsylvania elk, which hadn’t been hunted in more than half a century, was big news to hunters.
The proposed lottery hunt, expected to be an annual event for two to three years, was a response to the increasing crop damage being caused by the growing elk herd, which had doubled in size from 1971 to 1981. Many agency officials considered the hunt an alternative to the use of spotlights and rifles to resolve elk crop damage, a tool that could be used for selective harvest and customized management. It was a move seemingly destined to take the gun -- and unregulated harvest -- out of the farmer's hands and place it firmly in the grip of wildlife managers. The annual hunts were expected to reduce the herd of 135 elk to between 65 and 75 animals over a period of several years.
Under the proposal, interested hunters would pay a nonrefundable $10 fee to be included in a public lottery. The 30 applicants drawn would then participate in another drawing to determine what sex of elk they could shoot. In addition, they'd be required to buy a $15 elk permit.
But the proposed elk hunt, as appealing as it was to most hunters statewide, was not popular in Elk and Cameron counties, the elk herd's stomping grounds. Some farmers and residents there were rankled by the suggestion that someone from out of the area would kill their elk. So they took matters into their owns hands. During 1982, 15 elk were shot illegally and 11 others were killed while causing crop damage. When combined with other mortality for the year, a record 35 elk had been lost. The need for a hunt was gone; what was considered surplus or expendable had been removed from the herd.
Elk crop damage around St. Marys, however, didn't dissipate with the loss of 35 animals. The problem continued, which meant something other than a controversial lottery hunt would have to be tried. The most apparent remedy was to intensify habitat improvement work on state game and forest lands in the roughly 250-square mile elk range in an effort to keep the big beasts away from agricultural areas. The best way to accomplish that was under a new cooperative elk management plan developed by the Game Commission and Department of Environmental Resources' Bureau of Forestry and implemented in early 1982. The plan, which established the state's first elk management objectives, sought to improve habitat for elk on public lands and render technical assistance to landowners who were frequently troubled by elk. Later that year, an elk committee, comprising Game Commission and Bureau of Forestry officials and local farmers and sportsmen, was formed to address elk-related problems and serve as a conduit between managers and residents. It functioned more as a sounding board than a regulatory body, but the committee's periodic meetings kept everyone abreast of what was going on.
Habitat improvements under the management plan began slowly because of budgetary and manpower constraints, not to mention negative reaction from some who questioned the logic of dedicating Game Commission resources to an animal that couldn't be hunted.
But with time and through an educational effort that showed elk habitat improvements also benefited species such as deer, bear, turkeys, grouse and a variety of nongame animals, the amount of habitat work increased and opposition to it waned. Each passing year, efforts were intensified and expanded. Herbaceous openings and food plots were created and timber regeneration cuts made. In addition, prescribed burning and mowing were used to improve grasses and clovers, and farmers were enlisted under sharecropping agreements to plant remote herbaceous openings. Succulent legumes -- alfalfa and clovers -- were also planted on food plots to attract and hold elk on public lands. Although the program provided only limited benefits in its early years, it eventually evolved into a tremendous operation that truly catered to elk.
"We set up the best buffet that we could for elk," said Jim Hyde, who was involved in game lands planning and development during the period.
Game Commission elk research, mildly pursued in the late '70s, attracted more and more attention and funding as the '80s progressed. In 1981, an elk was fitted with a marking collar for the first time to track movement. A year later, use of telemetry collars began. After that, research activities picked up with each passing year. Most studies during the '80s focused on elk movements and home range. Through these investigations, the agency identified the need to acquire land in the Winslow Hill area, an important elk activity center, and gained valuable insight into elk food preferences, seasonal movements and habitat uses.
"Some range and movements of elk varied greatly between the sexes and seasons of the year," agency biologist Rawland D. Cogan reported in 1987. "Bulls used home ranges that were more than three times larger and over twice as far across as those used by cows. Home range and movements also varied by season. Elk showed a preference for herbaceous openings in the spring, summer and fall, and clearcuts in the winter."
The study results reinforced the ongoing management plan, which leaned heavily on creating the types of habitat elk typically seek out. By strategically locating these areas, many elk were persuaded to stay off farmlands, where they'd likely have been killed if they caused crop damage.
In the early '90s, elk research concentrated on herd reproduction, calf mortality and health profiles, much of which was accomplished through telemetry and blood analysis. In addition, biologists developed and implemented in 1992 a new census technique -- a total aerial survey -- that provided more reliable population estimates. Under the old census, about 60 people, many of whom were ground observers, and a helicopter were used to cover the territory used by elk. The refined approach required 20 people, an airplane and a helicopter.
The Game Commission's elk management efforts received a substantial shot in the arm in 1990 when the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) contributed $38,000 toward the purchase of State Game Lands 311, a 1,600-acre acquisition at that time, in the Winslow Hill area of Elk County (near Benezette). In 1992 and 1993, the RMEF contributed an additional $92,000 to help fund habitat enhancements and purchase and erect deterrent electric fencing on areas sustaining substantial elk crop damage. Five- strand electric fence was placed around fields and pastures on more than 550 acres cultivated by six farmers, all areas where elk conflicts were being resolved with a gun. In subsequent years, the number of elk being shot for crop damage declined.
Throughout the '80s, the elk herd's size changed little; it comprised 120 to 150 animals. Annual mortality -- elk killed by poachers, for crop damage, by dogs and cars -- seemed to be offsetting reproductive gains. But in the '90s, with the aid of better natural food conditions and deterrent fencing, elk flourished. In 1992, the herd's size was estimated to be 205 elk; in 1993, 224.
That the state's elk had endured two score and a handful of years without any management assistance -- save closed season protection -- was a credit to their perseverance and a blessing for Pennsylvanians, who have come to truly appreciate this unique resource.
"The more we do for the elk, the more they seem to respond to it," surmised former agency biologist William Drake, who had worked with the state’s elk for some time.
During the ‘90s, the elk herd experienced significant annual growth. In 2000, the herd was an estimated 566, more than doubling its early 1990s numbers. The population gains were the product of myriad factors including: increased use of deterrent fencing; specialized habitat management to accommodate elk; heightened public awareness about elk; and increased human presence in the elk range.
The Game Commission in 1998 launched a three-year trap-and transfer project to remove elk from areas in their primary range in Elk and Cameron counties where they were in conflict with other land uses or pose a threat to the public. Cows, calves and some spike bulls are taken in a corral trap; antlered bulls, especially those hanging out on the fringes of communities, are anesthetized. The program expanded the elk range from about 350 to 800 square miles.
During the project, the PGC, with assistance from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Bureau of Forestry and Bureau of State Parks and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, trapped and transferred 63 elk from Elk County and relocated them in Clinton County, mostly on the Sproul State Forest.
The project was started to accommodate the primary elk range’s steadily growing population, which had begun expanding on its own into western Clinton and northern Clearfield counties. It was a proactive management approach to limiting elk conflicts and the potential for habitat deterioration. Expanding the elk range was also an important goal of the state’s elk management plan, adopted by the PGC in 1996. Elk taken to Clinton County were placed in a three-acre holding pen and released several weeks later after spring green-up was underway. They were released from three different sites during the project.
The traditional elk range was comprised of one-third publicly-owned land and two-thirds privately-owned land. The expanded range encompasses an area that is just the opposite: two-thirds publicly-owned land and one-third privately-owned land. "We expect that we will see fewer conflicts with humans if the elk are on public land," Cogan noted.
The trap-and-transfer project was funded by and in cooperation with the PGC, DCNR, Pennsylvania State University, Frostburg State University, Purdue University and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
In 2000, the General Assembly and Gov. Tom Ridge enacted Act 111, which created an elk hunting license, and fees and procedures for applying for the special permit. Following a series of open houses throughout Pennsylvania to collect public opinion about holding an elk hunt, the Board of Game Commissioners in April 2001 adopted a proposal to hold an elk hunt later that year. More than 50,000 individuals submitted applications to be part of Pennsylvania’s first elk hunt in more than 70 years; 30 were selected for licenses; 27 shot elk.
Pennsylvania’s elk hunt has continued every year since 2001, annually drawing about 20,000 applicants for the elk licenses made available. In 2006, the Game Commission scheduled and held the state’s first-ever September elk hunt, a special seasons designed to assist farmers who sustain substantial elk crop damage in the early fall, before crops are harvested. Two elk were taken in the first September season.
The agency in 2003 created a preference system for the elk license drawing. Under the new system, individuals who are not awarded either an antlered or antlerless elk license in an annual drawing will be granted preference – or increased opportunity – in future drawings. A preference point is awarded for each year a hunter has applied and has not been selected. Another change that occurred in 2003 was a discontinuation on the limit of nonresident licenses that may be awarded.