HERE’s A GREAT AUCTION ITEM- a guided trip into PA’s elk range with an expert licensed guide, Bill May (Hoppy) whose life career was managing the food and cover for our PA wildlife with the PA Game Commission, particularly the ELK- pick you season- all are good- working to get a B&B to complete the package- Remember folks, you’ve got to get a ticket to come before you can be a winner!
ELK IN PENNSYLVANIA- Bay Journal News
The West Branch of the Susquehanna River and the steep mountains dropping down to its banks, are my first signs that I am entering another world, a wild world. A wooden sign announces, “Welcome to PA’s Elk Range” and I know that I have entered hallowed ground, sacred soil. I decrease my speed and scan the open areas and forest edges for the magnificent creatures. I don’t need to travel all the way to Montana to see elk for they are thriving right here in Pennsylvania.
One of the most widespread members of the deer family in North America, elk once had a range that extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and Canada to northern Mexico. When the first European settlers arrived, there were ten million elk in North America. These brown-gray ungulates, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, are identifiable by their four-inch long tails, light-colored rump, and the males’ massive branch-like antlers.
By 1852, unrestricted hunting reduced Pennsylvania’s herd to a few scattered individuals left in Elk County, and the late 1870s left none in the state. In 1913, the state began its first re-introductory effort, to restore the elk to their natural habitat and today their numbers are estimated to be over 700.
I’m traveling west to the village of Benezette in Elk County and the farthest reaches of the Chesapeake watershed to see these magnificent creatures and listen to their melodic bulging in the fall rutting season. My long time friend, Bill May, is accompanying me, a retiree of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, who managed a Wildlife Food & Cover Crew for the elk, and now is an elk guide. Besides elk, he will also share the conservation success story of reclaiming the abandoned mine lands that have become the elks’ home.
In the fall rut, the forest resounds with the bull’s bugling- a series of vocalizations that mature bulls use in order to compete for cows’ attention and to challenge opponent bulls. The call begins with a medium clear note, rises to a high pitch and ends in a shrill scream, followed by a series of grunts. It is one of the distinct calls of the wild, akin to a wolf howling or the call of a loon and it is enough to send shivers down your spine.
Females are attracted to the bulls that are the most dominant, illustrated by the bull’s ability to gather and keep his cow group. This includes fending off other bulls that constantly challenge his place as herd bull and keeping his harem together…an exhausting undertaking. In the open meadows and food plots, which were once minelands, quite a show could be going on.
Unregulated coal mining practices prior to 1977 left 2,500 miles of streams polluted by acid mine drainage, many of them in the Bay watershed, as well as 250,000 acres of un-reclaimed surface mine land. With the help of grants, spoil piles and dangerous cliffs were back-filled and graded, dressed with biosolids, seeded and planted. Engineers restored water quality, enhanced recreational opportunities and revitalized the area for elk and an abundance of other wildlife. The Elk Management Area, (Gamelands #311), is managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, whose mission is to conserve and enhance habitat for wildlife.
The reclaimed minelands have been planted in annual plants, grasses and legumes and it is in these herbaceous openings and “food plots,” that elk spend the majority of their time foraging. The neighboring forest provides critical cover, thereby mimicking the type of habitat that elk in the western states thrive in.
Recycled paper waste products (wood fibers and lime) are being successfully incorporated into the barren soil, resulting in improved soil productivity, plant growth and eventually, improved water quality.
In the clearing is one of the largest bulls Bill has ever seen- easily weighing over 1,100 pounds, with an impressive 8X8 rack that is well over 5 feet wide, 6 feet long and weighing 60 pounds. His “cow catchers” alone up front are two feet long, well into the world record size.
His harem consists of 15 cows, which he defends gallantly. He noses the ladies, herding them into a tight group. Then the entire forest, from all directions, begins reverberating with the sound of bulging bulls. Two satellite bulls emerge from the forest, bulls that are nearly as large as the king, and next in line if he becomes too exhausted or proves incapable of breeding all his cows. They strut their stuff, attempting to bugle as loud and frequently as the herd master. Then raghorns- two-year olds, with still impressive 5X5 racks, skirt the edge, knowing this is out of their league but still wanting to be part of the drama.
There isn’t five minutes that passes without the heart-quickening sound of an elk bulging and this goes on for hours. It is such a moving experience to be a privileged spectator in this grand wild show, and never had to leave the watershed.