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Pennsylvania’s elk herd presents a special treat

The peak of the mating season for our Pennsylvania elk herd, commonly called the “rut,” occurs from mid-September to early October and provides a special experience for dedicated wildlife watchers.

During the next several weeks, thousands of visitors armed with binoculars, spotting scopes or cameras will travel to the north-central Pennsylvania to view the wild elk living there. Currently, about 1,000 elk inhabit Pennsylvania’s elk range, which comprises parts of Elk, McKean, Cameron, Clinton, Potter, Clearfield and Centre counties north of Interstate 80.

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 some will be displaying 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.

For those folks who are not familiar with the Pennsylvania elk range, taking time to do a little homework before heading north will help avoid possible frustration and disappointment with the experience.

The websites for several of the tourist and visitor organizations in northcentral Pennsylvania are great sources of information for those planning a trip to elk country, especially first-time visitors. The Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau (www.visitpago.com) is the official tourist promotion agency for Cameron, Clarion, Elk, Forest and Jefferson counties. The Pennsylvania Wilds website (pawilds.com) is another good source of elk info.

The Elk Country Visitor Center located at 950 Winslow Hill Road in Benezette is the centerpiece for visitors to the region. During September and October, the facility is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Check out their website (elkcountryvisitorcenter.com) for a wealth of information on elk watching in the region.

Again this year, the Game Commission has installed a camera to provide live video of a field on State Game Lands 311 in Elk County. Elk, as well as deer, turkeys and other wildlife, tend to frequent this area during the bugling season.

According the Game Commission sources, the top time to see elk on camera is in late afternoon. Access the elk cam on the Game Commission website, www.pgc.pa.gov, by clicking on the Elk Country Live Stream link on the left side of the homepage. Along with the live video stream, there is plenty of useful information for elk country visitors. The link Elk Viewing Destinations below the video screen provides a map and specific directions to some of the best potential elk viewing areas.

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 they 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. While the elk in some locations 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.

Like most members of the deer family, elk tend to be most active around dawn or dusk, so 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.

To manage the numbers of elk and prevent them from expanding into areas that would create undue conflicts with farmers and other landowners, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has conducted a tightly regulated elk hunt each year since 2001.

A limited number of elk licenses are issued via a random drawing, giving those lucky hunters the opportunity to harvest a Pennsylvania elk. This year, 125 licenses were issued, 26 for antlered elk and 99 for antlerless elk for the special elk season that runs from Nov. 5-10.

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