The news that a 5X5 bull elk was shot illegally on Winslow Hill near Benezette in the wee hours of the morning Oct. 15 was especially interesting and sad to me.
A couple days before the animal was shot several times in the legs and subsequently had to be put out of its misery by a conservation officer, we had watched a 5X5 bull with eight or nine cows not far from where the ill-fated bull was shot.
I'm thinking it was the same animal.
My uncle was visiting the Pennsylvania elk range and was hoping to see a bull or two, and we were glad to run across this group. Even though it seemed like the rut was over, the 5X5 was trotting between cows, sniffing their butts to see if they were in estrus, clearly believing he was in charge and ready to mate.
He threw his head back several times and acted frustrated while we watched, but he never bugled.
To me, it was sort of humorous, because the cows seemed completely disinterested and likely had been impregnated by more dominant bulls weeks before. They barely tolerated the 5X5's advances. He was a year of two away from true significance.
In our state's elk range, a 5X5 seems to be the biggest of the smaller, young bulls, sort of like older teenagers. During the rut in September, they mostly stand on the edges of the harems of cows collected by the older, dominant herd bulls, those magnificent 6X7s and 7X8s and even larger-racked monarchs that do most of the breeding.
The 5X5s – nostrils full of the hormones from the cows in heat – lurk wistfully on the edges of the groups, desperately wanting to approach and try to mate, but not daring to challenge the dominant bulls for fear of being injured or killed.
They are no match for the herd bulls, that often weigh hundreds of pounds more than them – and on some level they know it.
During the rut, I have often seen 5X5s get close to a harem of cows and catch the attention of the herd bull. The larger male takes a few steps toward the young guy, feints a charge, and the 5X5 beats a hasty retreat. It happens over and over.
But the Sunday my uncle visited, at the end of the rut, or even after, the dominant bulls had gone off by themselves to rest and recuperate, exhausted by weeks of rutting, mating and fighting off other large bulls, leaving the groups of cows to the 5X5s.
The one we watched was clearly making the best of his opportunity. But perhaps he only had a couple more days to live.
The illegal shooting of the 5X5 bull, coming as it did a few weeks before the state's limited elk hunting season, may not seem significant to some, but it is an ominous development. The animal was shot in the front yard of a home, within close proximity of several houses.
Game Commission officers will have a tough time catching the shooter(s), but a reward of about $4,000 may persuade an informant. The penalties for illegally killing an elk out of season are up to $15,000 in fines and up to 36 months in jail, plus hunting-license revocation.
In addition, those convicted of illegally killing a trophy-class elk must pay a mandatory $5,000 replacement cost.
On a happier note, so far, licensed elk hunters are taking some impressive animals. Full coverage of the elk hunt will be in the Nov. 22 issue of Pennsylvania Outdoor News. Perhaps we will even have an update on the search for the illegal shooter of the 5X5.