Herds of visitors love Pennsylvania’s Elk Country
On many days each year, Rawley Cogan can gaze out his Pennsylvania office window and see something that would have been impossible a little more than a century ago — grazing elk sauntering through the meadow and along the tree line in groups small and large, some with huge antlers that can measure 4 feet across.
“We have elk up close and personal lots of the time,” said Cogan, president of the nonprofit Keystone Elk Country Alliance. “It is a unique experience.”
Although his office is in Elk County and surrounded by Elk State Forest, the animals have not always been as common as the place names suggest. The decimated elk population has only recently claimed a renewed toehold here.
Elk are the largest land animals in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, often more than 6 feet in height. Bulls sometimes weigh in at more than 900 pounds, and cows can exceed 600. Once found throughout the region, Pennsylvania’s “Elk Country” is the only place that elk can still be seen in the watershed today.
And it’s not just Cogan who enjoys the sight of these imposing animals. More than 400,000 people a year pass through the doors of the Elk Country Visitor Center, which the Alliance operates. Often, they will see elk from the huge picture windows overlooking the outside meadow, maintained with forage intended to attract the animals, or from short hiking trails outside. Almost always, they will be able to see elk from one of several viewing areas within a few miles of the center.
While elk are the big draw, the land where they thrive provides opportunities to see a wealth of other wildlife: showshoe hares, woodcock, beaver, bears, fishers, turkey, grouse and other forest birds.
“I think the general public understands that Elk Country is a pretty cool place,” Cogan said.
Pennsylvania Elk Country sprawls across more than 800 square miles, mostly on state forest and game lands on the western edge of the Bay watershed where the animals — known as “wapiti” to American Indians — help drive the local tourism industry. It’s a largely wild region with vast tracts of forest dotted with villages. The visitor center provides an orientation to the area and information about the elk reintroduction project. Since opening in 2010, the center has welcomed people from all 50 states and 45 countries.
Even on a snowy day during the holidays, traffic was slow but steady. “We’ve already had six different countries here this week,” said Brandi Hanes, the visitor center supervisor. “People come from everywhere to see the elk.”
It wasn’t always like this. Elk were found throughout the Pennsylvania colony when founder William Penn arrived in 1682. They were even grazing outside the newly founded village of Philadelphia.
In fact, when Columbus reached North America, elk were the most widespread member of its deer family, ranging from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from central Canada to northern Mexico. Some estimates put their numbers at 10 million.
But European settlers hunted elk relentlessly. Eastern elk, the only subspecies found east of the Mississippi River, were gone in most areas before the Civil War. Their last stand came in Pennsylvania shortly after the war. There’s disagreement as to exactly when the last elk disappeared, but it seems to have occurred during the 1870s. The Eastern elk became extinct.
While vanished from the east, elk still flourished in parts of the American West. Not long after the last elk was killed in Pennsylvania, federal officials were worried about the mushrooming elk population around Yellowstone National Park. They offered elk to anyone willing to take them.
The recently formed Pennsylvania Game Commission decided to take Yellowstone officials up on their offer. From 1913 through 1926, the Game Commission accepted a total of 177 elk from the West, most coming from Yellowstone and others from game preserves.
Their method of reintroduction was crude by today’s standards, with little preparation for the animals. The elk were run out of the railroad cars that brought them east, straight into Penn’s Woods to fend for themselves.
Initially, many died. Others wandered into farm fields — certainly a novelty for these elk from Yellowstone — and were shot.
Nonetheless, the elk population in Pennsylvania expanded and, by 1923, the Game Commission considered them numerous enough to support a limited hunting season.
For several years, nearly two-dozen elk were allowed to be shot legally, but others were poached or shot as the result of nuisance complaints. The population plummeted. The number legally killed dropped to 5 in 1930. The following year, only one was legally shot.
After the dismal 1931 season, the Game Commission again banned elk hunting, and for several decades the elk were on their own — largely neglected by managers.
“They really washed their hands of them,” Cogan said. Some in the Game Commission even began to suggest that elk no longer belonged in Pennsylvania. “They were like the forgotten species from the ’50s through the ’70s,” Cogan said. “The long and short of it is, elk had no value.”
The first elk census, conducted by Penn State biologists in 1971, found only 65. A few years later, there were just 38.
The numbers bounced back to 135 in 1981, but the rebound stalled as growing numbers increased tension with farmers, who blamed elk for crop damage. The numbers being shot by poachers and irritated farmers kept the population in check.
To reduce conflicts, biologists devised a strategy to lure elk away from farm fields and into the region’s vast tracts of public lands — and keep them there. The Game Commission and the state Bureau of Forestry worked to make small clearings in forests and plant them with grass and forage selected to attract elk.
“We could move elk in the direction we wanted to go by the habitat we created,” said Cogan, who joined the Game Commission in 1982.
They worked with utilities to improve habitats on pipeline rights-of-ways, effectively turning them into pathways that would lead elk to restored habitats nestled within the forests.
The concept worked. Conflicts — along with the killing of elk — were reduced, and elk began to thrive and expand their range. By 1990, the population exceeded 500. A limited hunt was resumed in 2001, when 50,000 people submitted applications to get one of 30 licenses being offered.
Hunting has continued since then, but the elk population has continued to grow, too, reaching approximately 1,100 today and ranging over more than 800 miles. Elk are no longer considered a species without value.
“Once the Game Commission understood that this herd had a tremendous amount of potential, you can see where we are today,” Cogan said.
It soon became clear that hunters and biologists were not the only ones interested in elk. Over the years, biologists began to notice more people cruising the region’s roads, trying to spot an elk.
By the early 2000s, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 tourists were visiting the region each year hoping to get a glimpse of an elk. A state study suggested that elk watching could be a major tourism draw and bolster the rural economy, but it needed a focal point to attract visitors.
Private donations, principally from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, helped to purchase land atop Winslow Hill, outside the tiny village of Benezette, which had long been a hot spot for elk viewing. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources pitched in $6 million to construct the visitor center and fund exhibits.
Annual visitation has grown from 80,000 people, when the center opened in 2010, to more than 400,000 people per year.
“It’s worked out better than any of us would have anticipated,” Cogan said.
The center offers an introductory film in a 4-D theater, which projects on three screens while the audience smells campfires and pine trees and feels the bumps through the forest of a jeep expedition looking for elk.
It’s filled with hands-on exhibits that introduce people to both the story of elk and the history and culture of the surrounding region.
Visitors learn that, although elk are members of the deer family, they are not the same creatures — a message brought home by a huge wall diagram that shows how
an elk dwarfs the native white-tailed deer. (A deer fawn may weigh 7 pounds when it’s born. An elk calf weighs in
The gift shop is stocked with locally produced merchandise, from beeswax candles and elk sausage (from elk farms) to maple syrup and art, providing a storefront for around 180 vendors.
Visitor spending in rural Elk County has grown by nearly 47 percent in recent years, to $69.3 million in 2014. Wineries, bed and breakfasts and craft shops are popping up. Online customer reviews for hotels in the region are filled with accounts of visitors passing through to look for elk.
The visitor center has helped convert elk viewing into a year-round attraction. The biggest crowds visit in the September and October mating season, when male elk can be heard bugling and sometimes seen antler wrestling as they compete for females. But winter offers the chance to see large herds, and spring brings the opportunity to see a newborn calf.
The center and an adjacent education building are both LEED-certified Gold, and environmental education is a major activity. Since the center opened, more than 400,000 people have participated in education programs, mostly students, though some are geared toward adults. While almost all lessons touch on some aspect of elk, they cover all manner of environmental topics.
But program leaders may have to pause if elk wander near the building’s floor-to-ceiling windows. “I know they’re not going to pay attention if the elk are out there,” acknowledged Courtney Colley, the center’s education coordinator.
While the Winslow Hill area around the visitor center — which is off-limits to hunting — is the focal point for watching elk, there are many other viewing areas throughout the region. The state has created a 127-mile elk scenic drive that connects many of them, as well as several natural areas where visitors can view remnants of old growth forests or glimpse beavers and other wildlife.
Tourists can explore the forests and seek elk while hiking, backpacking or horseback riding on the region’s extensive trail system. For those who want a less rugged experience, the center offers wagon rides on weekends — and sleigh rides in the winter — to see elk.
“Where else can you go on a horse-drawn wagon ride and have elk 20 yards away?” Cogan asked. “There aren’t many places in the country you can do that, but we’re doing it here.”
And this may just be the beginning. The elk population is continuing to grow and expand their range. A 2006 elk management plan from the Game Commission envisions a fourfold increase in the area actively managed for elk, expanding from 800 square miles to more than 3,700 square miles, largely by extending farther into the state forest to the east known as the Pennsylvania Wilds. The potential size of the population is unknown.
My wife and I visited on a blustery day punctuated with occasional snow showers. No elk were visible from the large windows of the visitor center.
Not to worry, assured Teanna Kobuck, a member of the center’s education team. She pulled out a map and directed us to some nearby viewing sites where she was confident we’d find some elk.
Actually, we didn’t even have to go that far. On our way out of the visitor center driveway, dozens of elk were grazing in the woods, just yards off the road.
We continued onto the other sites, and saw nothing at the first one, atop of hill being buffeted by cold winds. But the next site, a protected valley less than a mile away, was carpeted with elk — massive animals just a few feet outside of the car window.
We pulled into the viewing area parking lot and tried to count them, but stopped at 50 — which may have been just half of the herd. Some were grazing, others resting on the ground.
It wasn’t Yellowstone, but these descendants of elk from the country’s first national park were proof that a watershed with 18 million people can still find a place for a part of its wild heritage.
Visiting Elk Country
Pennsylvania’s Elk Country is the only place in the Chesapeake Bay watershed with free-roaming elk. (A small number have been reintroduced in Virginia, but outside the watershed at the western edge of the state). Information about the reintroduction effort and the Keystone Elk Country Alliance is at experienceelkcountry.com.
The Elk Country Visitor Center, on 245 acres near the village of Benezette in Elk County, provides excellent elk viewing opportunities as well as an introduction to the region and other viewing locations. Admission is free. Tickets to the 4-D theater are $3. The visitor center is open year-round, but only on weekends during the winter. Its schedule is:
- January-March: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
- April-May: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Monday
- June-October: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Daily
- November-December: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Monday
Horse-drawn wagon rides take place at the center on weekends, weather permitting. Call ahead for the schedule: 814-787-5167.
Elk Country is part of a larger outdoor region known as Pennsylvania Wilds, a 2-million acre region including vast tracts of state forests, game lands and state parks that offers numerous outdoor recreational and wildlife viewing opportunities. The Pennsylvania Wilds website provides information about recreation, lodging and dining in the region.