Taking a peak at Pennsylvania’s thriving elk-watching community:
By Ben Moyer
White-tailed deer are familiar to everyone in this region. But fewer people know that, in the time it takes to watch a Steelers game, they could reach a place where a species of deer eight times bigger than the average whitetail roams free.
The largest wild elk herd in the Northeast, over 1,000 strong, inhabits a rugged swath of the Allegheny Plateau in northcentral Pennsylvania. In September especially, elk-viewers from throughout Pennsylvania, the Northeast and across the country descend on the tiny village of Benezette, Elk County to see and hear elk. That’s when the mountains ring with the bulls’ eerie mating call, known as “bugling,” and bulls clash their massive antlers in combat to win females. There’s no spectacle like it in Pennsylvania’s outdoors.
“The popularity of elk has exploded over the past decade,” said John Straitiff, executive director of the PA Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau, the tourism promotion agency serving Elk and Cameron counties at the heart of the elk range, plus Clarion, Forest and Jefferson counties on its western fringe. “Elk-viewers have been a tremendous boost to this region. “Local people are starting bed & breakfasts, restaurants, breweries and wineries. But everyone knows it all depends on this remaining a place where elk can live.”
Elk once lived throughout Pennsylvania, including the Laurel Highlands. But unregulated hunting by early settlers and destruction of forest habitat pushed them to extinction. The last native Pennsylvania elk is believed to have been killed just after the Civil War, near St. Marys, Elk County.
But In 1913 the Pennsylvania Game Commission purchased 50 elk from Yellowstone National Park and re-introduced the speciesat scattered locations around the state. Only the small band turned loose near Benezette survived. Through careful habitat management by the Game Commission and the state Bureau of Forestry, with financial and volunteer help from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, the herd grew to its present number, and in recent years has expanded into wilder parts of the neighboring counties of Clearfield, Centre, Jefferson, Potter and Tioga.
In addition to the private entrepreneurship now serving elk tourists, state agencies havehelped Benezette and the surrounding region accommodate the annual influx. When elk first began drawing crowds in the 1970s, there were no places for visitors to park, no public restrooms, no facilities of any kind. Locals found elk-viewers parking on their lawns and knocking on their doors to use the bathroom. Conflicts sometimes flared.
“We saw even back then that we needed a destination up here, someplace visitors could get oriented and where basic services could be offered,” said Rawley Cogan, president of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, a non-profit group that educates visitors about elk, and protects and enhances habitat.
In response, the state Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) featured elk-viewing in its Pennsylvania Wilds regional eco-tourism initiative (Similarto the Laurel Highlands Conservation Landscape Initiative in southwestern counties). DCNR commissioned an elk-tourism management plan and developed a system of viewing sites where visitors can park, use a no-frills but clean restroom, and watch elk from blinds or elevated platforms in their natural surroundings. The Pennsylvania Game Commission also improved what had long been the most popular viewing area on State Game Land No. 311 atopWinslow Hill, just outside Benezette. The commission installed parking, trails and interpretive signs, and offers educational programs about elk and other wildlife on autumn weekends. The viewing sites largely alleviated the safety hazard posed by tourists stopping along the winding mountain roads to watch elk. Visitors should remember, though, that although the elk are conspicuous and easily seen, they are wild animals and there are no guarantees about where they’ll be at any given time.
In 2007, the R. K. Mellon Foundation saw the potential for sustainable economic development based on elk tourism and funded the purchase of 245 acres outside Benezette for construction of a visitor center. DCNR invested $5 million to build the center, contingent upon the Keystone Elk Country Alliance committing staff and volunteers to operate and maintain the facility.
The Elk Country Visitor Center opened in September 2010. The Center features educational exhibits, classrooms, viewing stations and trails, and a high-tech story theater that tells the story of elk conservation. More than 50,000 visitors from 46 states and 16 countries passed through the center’s doors in its first four months of operation. Annual visitation grew to near a half-million by 2014.
“None of us predicted anything quite like this,” Cogan reflected. “You had a gut feeling this would work but the response exceeds all expectations.”
Many visitors are surprised to find such a state-of-the-art facility in a relatively remote location. LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the 8,500-square-foot structure stands at the crest of hairpin turns ascending a ridge, greeting guests with a stone and wood exterior that appears to have sprouted from the mountain landscape. Often, elk can be seen grazing just outside the expansive windows.
“We consider this center to be a world-class destination,” Cogan said. “We’ve had people who travel the country say ‘We go everywhere and seek out this kind of thing. This is the best facility we’ve ever seen.’”
Wild elk, though, need more room than the lawns outside a big building. To help the herd thrive the Keystone Elk Country Alliance and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have raised millions of dollars to buy and manage wild-land habitat across the plateau. Some tracts have been transferred to the Game Commission or the DCNR Bureau of Forestry. All that territory serves as habitat for elk and other wildlife.
“Conservation drives the whole design and message of this center,” Cogan said. “We help people make the connection that what elk need to live are the same things we need. We believe that people come here and sense something meaningful.”
Because of the elk herd’s growing allure, making the most of a visit to Pennsylvania’s elk range takes some planning. Elk are generally easy to see year-round but early autumn is the peak of elk activity and visitor numbers. September reservations for lodging at the region’s motels, bed & breakfasts and campgrounds must be made months in advance. On September weekends, the traffic on narrow mountain roads reminds some tourists of their big city commute back home. So, if your schedule allows, mid-week is the best time to go. Getting out early in the morning is another smart elk-viewing strategy.
Some visitors are surprised to learn that the Game Commission regulates a limited hunting season on Pennsylvania elk every November. Hunters apply for a random drawing in which about 100 elk permits are allotted for the season, which is designed to prevent the herd from growing too rapidly and expanding into districts where they would conflict with agriculture and other human activities.
“People see these elk in town (Benezette) or near the visitor center and sometimes ask how hunters can kill what they see as ‘tame’ elk,” Cogan observed. “I compare it to Yellowstone National Park. Just because you see elk around Old Faithful, that doesn’t mean that all elk in Wyoming are ‘tame.’ If you go only a few miles from here, to the Quehanna Wild Area or the Kettle Creek drainage, those elk see or smell you and they’re gone. This is no zoo; it’s an ecosystem and regulated hunting in no way conflicts with conservation.”
Most visitors to the elk range, though, are satisfied just to see an elk, and that part of the herd that lives around Benezette, more acclimated to people,seldom disappoints.Often, they’re seen grazing and lazing on lawns and sometimes striding around town while visitors enjoy lunch at an outdoor table.
“I like seeing someone see an elk for the first time,” said Doug Ruffo, who opened Benezette Wines after a long corporate career in a city. “We had a couple at the winery and they asked where they might see an elk, so we went out to the deck to look at a map and two huge bulls walked through the backyard.”
“People like choices,” Ruffo continued. “They can come now and see some elk, tour the visitor center, then have a meal, try some wine with a local name and stay nearby in a cozy cabin in the woods. But people don’t see this as a tourist trip; it’s still wild and beautiful here.”