Exploring the Pennsylvania elk range
By Walt Young
For the Mirror
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. The peak of the mating season for our Pennsylvania elk herd, commonly called the “rut,” occurs from mid-September through early October.
Elk are a spectacular sight any time of year, but these impressive animals are especially compelling this time of year. Mature bulls can weigh nearly 1,000 pounds, and some will be displaying a grand set of antlers. Bulls employ their headgear to impress potential mates or as weapons to fend off rival males. Bulls also bugle to advertise their presence to potential mates and to 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 haunting sound of a bull elk bugling on a crisp, fall morning soon becomes truly special for those who appreciate the natural world. All of these factors draw wildlife watchers to the elk range to observe this grand natural spectacle firsthand.
For those folks who are not familiar with the Pennsylvania elk range, taking time to do a little homework before heading north might help avoid possible frustration and disappointment with the experience. The websites for several of the tourist and visitor organizations in north-central 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 its website (elkcountryvisitorcenter.com) for a wealth of information on elk watching in the region.
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 any way they can to view and elk in a field or nearby woodlot. Always 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 wild animals, and the elk range isn’t a just big theme park. Feeding wild elk is also unlawful in Pennsylvania.
Visitors in the Benezette area may now tune into the Game Commission’s Northcentral Elk Viewing Area Information Radio Station, WRBR385, broadcasting on 1620-AM. The radio station provides a guided tour of the heart of the elk management area. In addition to regular seasonal messages and safe elk viewing tips, the station broadcasts important notices about upcoming events and emergencies. The broadcasts are brought to you in partnership with the Keystone Elk Country Alliance and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
For those who can’t make the trip north to view elk in person, the Game Commission has again installed a camera to provide a live video feed 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 to Game Commission sources, the top time to see elk on the elk cam is in late afternoon. Access the elk cam on the Game Commission website, www.pgc.pa.gov, by going about halfway down the left side of the homepage to the “Quick Clicks” box. In that box, click on the “LIVE Elk Cam” link. Along with the live video stream, there is a wealth of other useful information for elk country visitors.
Of course, a small contingent of folks come to the Pennsylvania elk range every fall to do more than look at the animals. Since 2001, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has conducted a tightly regulated elk hunt each year to manage the numbers of elk and prevent them from expanding into areas that would create undue conflicts with farmers and other landowners.
A limited number of elk licenses are issued via a random drawing, giving those hunters drawn the opportunity to harvest a Pennsylvania elk during three separate hunting seasons. This year, 14 licenses for antlered elk and 15 licenses for antlerless elk were issued for the archery elk season that begins on Sept. 11-25; 32 antlered licenses and 77 antlerless were issued for the general elk season that runs from Nov. 1-6; and 10 antlered licenses and 39 antlerless licenses were issued for the late season that runs from Jan. 1-8, 2022.