This Friday, 86 lucky hunters will be awarded an elk license for the 2013 elk season that will take place throughout the Elk Management Area in northcentral Pennsylvania. But for many wildlife enthusiasts, another very special elk season is just about to get underway. The peak of the mating season for our Pennsylvania elk herd, commonly called the "rut," occurs from mid-September to early October. During those weeks of early autumn, thousands of visitors armed with binoculars, spotting scopes or cameras visit the region to see and hear this annual wildlife ritual being performed by the more than 850 elk that inhabit the nearly 900 squares miles of the Pennsylvania elk range, which comprises parts of Elk, Cameron, Clinton, Potter and Clearfield counties.
Elk can be a spectacular sight any time of year, but these impressive animals are especially compelling to view in the fall. Mature bulls can weigh nearly 1,000 pounds and will be sporting a grand set of antlers, headgear they will use to impress potential mates or as weapons to fend off rival suitors. Elk watching also offers a unique soundtrack to the experience as the bulls "bugle" to advertise their presence and further assert their dominance for mating rights. The bugle is a high-pitched, nasal squeal that at first seems out of place as the call of such a large and magnificent animal. But it is also a haunting sound that quickly grows on those who appreciate the natural world.
Because 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of elk reintroduction here in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is commemorating this milestone with a series of special events each weekend from now through Oct. 14 hosted by Game Commission personnel and designed to inform and to help visitors appreciate the elk and their habitat. Some of these will include hikes, bike rides and driving tours at various locations around the elk range. For a complete listing of all the upcoming events, go to the Pennsylvania Game Commission website, www.pgc.state.pa.us, and click on the button labeled "100th Anniversary PA Elk Restoration" on the homepage.
The websites for several of the tourist and visitor organizations for northcentral Pennsylvania are also great sources of information for those planning a trip to elk country. Check out the Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau, www.visitpago.com, which is the official tourist promotion agency for Cameron, Clarion, Elk, Forest and Jefferson counties. The Pennsylvania Wilds website at pawilds.com is another good source of elk info. Both these sites have a wealth of information about where and how to enjoy viewing Pennsylvania's largest animals. The Elk Country Visitor Center at Benezette opened three years ago and is the centerpiece for visitors to the region. Hours and events scheduled for the center can be found on their website: elkcountryvisitorcenter.com.
Most folks will want to make a visit to the area around Winslow Hill a part of their initial foray to elk country. Located just off Rt. 555 a few miles from the town of Benezette, this area harbors a good concentration of elk and ample viewing opportunities, so on any given day chances of seeing some elk there are good.
The downside to the Benezette/Winslow Hill area is it sometimes gets crowded this time of year. Traffic jams are common on the narrow back roads there, as drivers by the dozen pull over and park as best the can to view and elk in a field or nearby woodlot. In any case, remember to be respectful of private property and the animals themselves. And while the elk are somewhat accustomed to humans stopping to watch them, they are still fundamentally wild animals, and the elk range isn't a just big theme park.
After you have seen and heard a few elk, you might prefer, as I do, a less crowded experience. Weekends tend to attract the most elk tourists, of course, so make your trips to the elk range during the week if possible. Take some time to learn some of the state forest and state game lands in the region that are home to elk, and be there early to listen for bugling in order to locate some elk. Then slowly work your way in that direction, carefully glassing ahead with a good pair of binoculars. Often you will able to get reasonably close some elk this way and have the opportunity to watch them in a more relaxed and satisfying environment.