BENEZETTE (September 25, 2019) – Elk in Pennsylvania have bounced from extinction to become the largest herd in the northeast and a major attraction, roaming freely on thousands of protected acres of natural land in the north-central part of the state, state Senator Andy Dinniman said.
“The return of the elk herd is a testament to the work of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the resilience of nature,” Dinniman said. “To see these creatures in their natural environment is an extraordinary experience and one that reminds you of just how unique and precious our natural treasures and preserved forests, woodlands, and open spaces are to Pennsylvania.”
As a member of the Senate Game and Fisheries Committee, Dinniman recently visited Benezette in Elk County, considered the heart of Pennsylvania elk country during the onset of the elk rut, for a firsthand look at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s efforts to manage the large and growing heard.
Elk were originally native to Pennsylvania and ranged statewide, with concentrations in the northcentral and Pocono Mountains, before the species was eliminated as a result of colonization and over-hunting. By the beginning of the 19th century, Elk were eliminated in southeastern Pennsylvania counties and by the 1870s they had been extirpated in Pennsylvania. Ultimately, the species became extinct throughout its range, which included New York and New England.
The wild elk that call Pennsylvania home today are the descendants of two restoration efforts arriving between 1913 and 1926 from Yellowstone Park and a preserve in Montour County.
Since then, the population of wild elk has fluctuated due to poaching, loss of habitat, farm management, and disease. However, in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, thanks to new research, increased funds, more preserved land, and a comprehensive elk management plan, the elk population surged. Today, there are an estimated 1,000 wild in elk in Pennsylvania, largely located in Elk and Cameron counties, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
The word “elk” comes from the German “elch,” the name for the European moose. The elk is also called “wapiti,” a Native America word meaning “white deer,” probably referring to animal’s sun-bleached spring coat or its light-colored rump.
The elk is the second-largest member of the deer family in North America; only the moose is larger. They are much larger and heavier than white-tailed deer, weighing anywhere from 500 to 1,000 pounds.
Strong muscular animals, elk can run 30 mph for short distances, and can trot for miles. They jump well and swim readily. Their senses of smell and hearing are keen.
Female elk known as “cows” often bark and grunt to communicate with their calves, and calves make a sharp squealing sound. The best-known elk call, however, is the (male elk) bull’s bugling. Bugling occurs primarily during the mating season. It consists of a low bellow that ascends to a high note, which is held until the animal runs out of breath, followed by guttural grunts. Cows also bugle at times.
Each year, a bull grows large branching antlers that sweep up and back from the head. In May, two bumps start to swell on the animal’s skull, pushing up about half an inch per day. Yearlings usually grow single spikes 10 to 24 inches in length, while older bulls may produce racks with main beams 4 to 5 feet in length and having five to nine tines to a side. Bulls carry their antlers into late winter or early spring when they are shed.
Dinniman, who also serves on the Senate Environmental Resource and Energy Committee, noted that the Pennsylvania elk herd is located in the what is known as “the Pennsylvania Wilds,” 2 million acres of public land, 50 state game lands, 29 state parks, 8 state forests, 2 National Wild & Scenic Rivers, abundant wildlife and hundreds of miles of land and water trails. Once the former lumber capital of the world, the Wilds covers approximately 25 percent of the state’s land acreage in north-central Pennsylvania yet is home to just 4 percent of the population.
“Many residents in Chester County and southeast Pennsylvania may not realize just how vast our state is and that a huge swath of land, encompassing 12 counties and roughly the size of Yellowstone Park, is home to some of the most rugged country and one of best the outdoor recreation destinations in North America,” Dinniman said.
In total, Pennsylvania has more than 4.5 million acres of (state and federal) public land, roughly 15 percent of the Commonwealth’s total land area, which Dinniman said “must be preserved and protected.”