Elk flourish in Pennsylvania, other states, so why not New York?

Albany — Neighboring Pennsylvania’s elk restoration effort is a modern-day success story, with the Keystone State’s elk herd attracting thousands of elk-viewing visitors annually and a limited hunt drawing widespread interest for the coveted tags.

And Pennsylvania isn’t the only state east of the Mississippi to witness the return of the elk, thanks to some ambitious restoration efforts engineered by state wildlife agencies.

In Michigan, where elk disappeared from the landscape around 1875, a restoration effort began as early as 1918 when seven Rocky Mountain elk were released near Wolverine, Mich. Today the herd numbers somewhere around 700-900, and a limited elk hunt has been in place since 1984.

Kentucky’s restoration effort was more recent: a herd established in the eastern portion of the state has flourished after 1,550 elk were transplanted from several western states. Today the herd numbers around 5,000 and a lottery hunt has been held since 2001, with over 1,000 permits now available each year.

Tennessee in 2009 offered its a limited elk hunt for the first time in nearly 150 years. Wisconsin has launched an elk reintroduction program, getting its animals from Kentucky.

West Virginia recently gave the go-ahead for an elk reintroduction effort, while Ohio is talking about a similar effort.

In New York, however, a 1998 study on the feasibility of restoring elk to the Empire State landscape pointed to several potential stumbling blocks, notably elk-vehicle encounters and conflicts in agricultural areas.

“By strict habitat standards, much of New York could probably support elk,” read the report authored by SUNY ESF professors Karl A. Didier and William F. Porter. “However, many areas were inappropriate for restoration because of potential elk-human conflicts. For instance, areas dominated by agriculture were likely to support the nutritional needs of elk, but were not suitable for restoration because human inhabitants would be likely to react negatively to crop depredation.”

The general public, the authors concluded, would also not “respond positively to restoration within a short distance of an interstate highway.”

The study used a two-pronged approach to determine the feasibility of returning elk to at least a portion of New York. The authors eliminated areas where “high levels of elk-human conflicts would be likely, or where elk were not historically present.”

Factors that eliminated portions of the state from consideration were:

• counties with 15 percent or more cropland.

• counties with an urbanized area and total population of over 100,000.

• areas within 8 kilometers of a four-lane highway.

• areas where elk were not present in the past.

• remaining areas of less than 500 square kilometers.

That eliminated much – 78 percent, to be exact – of the state, with a few noteworthy exceptions. Porter and Didier boiled down the potential areas for elk reintroduction to an area they referred to as the “peripheral Adirondacks,” including the western portion of Adirondack Park; the Catskill mountains of southeastern New York; and two areas in southwestern New York, including Allegany State Park.

Ultimately, it was road/highway densities that most impacted suitability for elk restoration, the study’s authors noted.

“Without road densities, habitat of high suitability existed in all three areas, although the peripheral Adirondacks included more than the Catskills or southwestern New York,” the report read. “However, mean suitability was highest in the Catskills, followed by the peripheral Adirondacks and finally southwestern New York.”

Still, Didier and Porter concluded that “large portions of the peripheral Adirondacks and Catskill regions are sufficiently suitable to support a restored population of elk,” provided there is no substantial “exploitation” of elk in the form of hunting and/or poaching of the animals.

The authors said road access for hunting, logging and other activities may drive elk out of their preferred habitat. At the same time, they noted that when elk “are not exposed to intense hunting or poaching pressure, they generally have a high fidelity to annual home ranges in the face of other forms of human disturbance,” such as logging activities.

The study noted that the success or failure of any restoration effort “is often dependent on management decisions that are made after the restoration proceeds or, at least, after potential habitat has been identified.”

Those decisions have not been made in New York state because there is currently no movement afoot to restore elk.

Most states that have restored elk to their original range have now allowed a limited elk hunt, with a popular lottery-type drawing for the coveted tags. In particular, Pennsylvania and Kentucky have seen elk numbers grow and the limited hunting opportunities attract plenty of interest from both residents and nonresidents.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, thousands of elk watchers pour into the Benezette, Pa., area, where an Elk Country Visitor Center is a popular attraction, notably in the fall when the bull elk are bugling and on full display. The elk have served as an economic engine in the region, with restaurants, lodging properties and associated businesses all benefiting from their presence.

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