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Pennsylvania Elk

Posted on Sep 19, 2014

Typically when most people think of North American Elk (Cervus elaphus), they picture them scattered across a beautiful mountainous landscape in the Rockies or dotting a grassland prairie in the Midwest. What many fail to think of however, is elk in their own backyard or wooded property right here in the eastern United States; many except those in “elk country” Pennsylvania.

How would you like to have elk in your backyard? Can you see them? There is a male and his harem of females right in the middle of the picture.

How would you like to have elk in your backyard? Can you see them? There is a male and his harem of females right in the middle of the picture.

Historically, Pennsylvania was like most states having a healthy elk population with copious amounts of prime habitat capable of sustaining the largest member of the deer family. However, upon the arrival of Europeans and onset of colonization, the elk began to disappear from its once impressive range. Destruction of habitat and over hunting extirpated elk from Pennsylvania by 1870, if not before. Back in those days, conservation of species was unheard of as elk and other species we consider common today such as white tailed deer, turkey and quail were exploited by newcomers to the continent.

This beautiful bull came out to feed in this opening as dusk approached.

A couple hundred years ago a sighting like this would have been unheard of. Today, elk can be seen quite frequently throughout various counties in Pennsylvania, including Elk County.

So, if the elk were extirpated nearly 200 years ago from Pennsylvania, why are they there now? Let’s look at a timeline detailing the rebound of the elk population:

  • 1895: The Pennsylvania Game Commission was created and initiated many programs to replenish the state’s wildlife species.
  • 1912: Early discussions of re-introducing elk into Pennsylvania from Yellowstone National Park and Jackson Hole Refuge Area begin. The western populations at this time were growing rapidly, but managers were against mandating sanctioned hunts to lower the population numbers. However, they were not opposed to translocating individuals elsewhere.
  • 1913: Pennsylvania’s first shipment of elk are received. 50 elk purchased at $30 each were sent via train and released in several counties, mostly in protected state lands.  A law was set in place to protect the elk from being hunted until 1921.
  • 1915: 95 more elk are brought by train and released. Public perception of the reintroduction is positive except for farmers who received significant crop damage from the elk.
  • 1923: The first bull elk hunting season is instituted, two years after initially planned.
  • 1928: Last year of the bull elk hunting season as numbers severely dropped due to illegal hunting and shooting by disgruntled farmers.
  • From the 1930’s to 1970’s: Little was done to manage the elk population as the United States fell into the Depression, World War II and so on. However, tensions continued to grow as conflicts between elk and farmers increased.
  • From 1970 to 1974: The first research was performed on the Pennsylvania elk herds as little was known regarding population numbers, sex ratio, offspring recruitment, etc. As a result, the Game Commission better understood how to better manage the elk and began to work on how to reduce the farmer-elk conflict while providing optimal habitat for the elk. Wherever vacant farm fields could be used or strip mines could be reclaimed, food plots and attractive habitat for the elk were created in order to keep them away from corn and other crops. As a result of the habitat restoration, the elk population began to thrive with numbers significantly increasing.
  • 1982: The first lottery hunt in which 30 people could be given elk hunting permits was instituted. However, those that did not want out of area hunters shooting their local elk went out and illegally shot several individuals, while farmers shot several pest elk. With over 30 individuals removed from the population, the Game Commission could no longer hold the lottery hunt.
  • 1990’s: The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation contributed funds to the Game Commission to improve habitat and put up fencing around farmers fields to protect them from being damaged by the growing elk herds.
  • 2000: The elk population is estimated at 566 individuals.
  • 2001: Elk hunts are permitted once again.
Elk Country Visitor's Center located in Benezette, PA.

Elk Country Visitor’s Center located in Benezette, PA.

Today, the Pennsylvania elk population is healthy once again and has expanded from the counties of their initial release to other counties within the state. Designated hunting seasons are now in place for the elk and serves to keep the population in check. Active management still occurs, creating more habitat for the large mammals and benefiting many other species in the process. Many education programs have been developed, and there is even an Elk Country Visitor’s Center that encourages the public to learn about the elk through their many interactive exhibits and provides an opportunity to see them up close via their hiking trails or wagon rides.

A large bull stands guard over his harem of cows and their calves. Bulls are in the rut now, meaning breeding season is underway.

A large bull stands guard over his harem of cows and their calves. Bulls are in the rut now, meaning breeding season is underway, and can be heard bugling to attract females. Due to management activities, Pennsylvania’s elk have ample habitat to breed in once again.

So next time you think about taking a big trip somewhere to see the elk, don’t forget they can be seen not far from your own backyard. As always, give these magnificent animals some space and respect when you see them. Elk are valuable members of the several ecosystems they inhabit and are often referred to as a success story here in the Northeast. We hope to hear of many more success stories like the elk’s with the many species in our region in need of conservation. Furthermore, no success story would be complete without including the human side of things, and keeping a balance between wildlife and our activities while mitigating conflicts where possible is important. It takes time but is well worth the effort!

Stay tuned to continue to learn about how we are working with several sensitive species and connecting with people to find that proper balance needed to preserve more of the fascinating species in our own backyards.


Elyse Henshaw
Conservation Technician