Century-old elk transplant project proves a boon to hunters
BENEZETTE, Pa. — Back in 1913, 50 elk were placed on a train near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to begin a journey to their new homes in Pennsylvania.
The bulls and cows – confined in boxcars – traveled for 2,000 miles, across plains, through mountains, over rivers and past small towns and major cities.
Finally, the animals, which cost about $30 a head, reached their destinations. Half were placed in Clinton County, the other half in Clearfield County – locations that were specifically selected to be their new habitats. Without any acclimation, the majestic animals left the confines of the train, entered their new surroundings and promptly wandered far away.
“This kind of becomes political and instead of putting elk where they belong, they put them where they thought was best and to satisfy some people who were interested in seeing elk in their area,” Pennsylvania Game Commission associate editor Joe Kosack said. “So we end up putting elk in places they probably should have never been.
“And, as soon as they get off the boxcar and are released, some of them take off and they don’t stop for 60 miles. We found out right away it takes certain type of habitat to satisfy elk.”
The relocation project was meant to address two issues – overcrowding of elk in Yellowstone and the lack of wildlife in Pennsylvania, where overhunting and habitat destruction led to the last native elk being harvested in either the 1860s or 1870s, with accounts varying.
All total, the Pennsylvania Game Commission brought more than 170 elk into the state – throughout the 1910s and 1920s – mostly in the central region, from as far north as Potter County to Huntingdon County in the south. But they did not thrive, with only a few dozen being alive by the mid-20th Century, mostly in and around Elk and Cameron counties, where they had last lived naturally in the 1800s and are concentrated today.
“It’s pretty rugged country,” Kosack said. “If an elk got wise to being stalked, it could learn to allude hunters pretty quickly in country like that. But, for whatever reason, they managed to make a stand up there, so that’s why we have elk where they are now.”
A census, conducted by Penn State University, put the commonwealth’s elk population at approximately 65 in 1971 before it dropped into the 30s by the middle of the 1970s, likely due to the parasite brain worm. But, through improved habitat management and protection, better scientific understanding of the animals’ patterns thanks to tracking collars, and efforts of several organizations, including the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the population has grown to a current estimated size of 1,000 to 1,200.
All descendants of the original transplants from the early-1900s, they live in Elk, Cameron, Clinton, Clearfield and Potter counties, although, on occasion some stray from that region, including a bull that ventured into Cambria County in 2010.
More than 30,000 hunters enter Pennsylvania’s annual elk lottery.
In 2019, only 142 tags were given out for the three seasons – Archery: Sept. 14-28 (5 antlered tags, 10 antlerless); General: Nov. 4-9 (27 antlered, 71 antlerless): Late: Jan. 4-11, 2020 (29 antlerless). The hunt is used to generate revenue for the Game Commission, help control the herd’s size and create interest in the elk.
Chronic wasting disease – an always fatal, contagious neurological condition that causes a degeneration of the brain, resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior and loss of bodily functions – could possibly be the biggest potential threat to the elk herd.
It is transmitted through body fluids and environmental contamination of soil, food or water.
There are already three Disease Management Areas for deer in Pennsylvania, including one that covers all of Bedford County, along with most of Cambria and Somerset and part of Westmoreland.