Before the 17th century, the PA Wilds were a little different.
Acres and acres of primordial forest lay untouched by the hands of industry. Native Americans lived off the land. Elk lived among them in the forests of the Allegheny Mountains.
But come the 20th century, there was not a single elk in Pennsylvania.
Fast forward to today, and Central PA is quickly emerging as an elk-viewing hotspot. From Benezette, PA and other cities in Elk County to neighboring Cameron, Clinton, Clearfield, and Potter Counties, elk roam wildly, amazing tourists and locals alike.
So how did this species reemerge after extinction? Read on as we share the history of elk in Pennsylvania.
Why the PA Elk Went Extinct
While elk are not on the top of the food chain (after all, they’re herbivores), they rarely fall prey to predators. Bears and coyotes are responsible for the loss of just 1% of elk calves, thanks to the strong maternal instinct of cow elks.
The only predator of adult elk in Pennsylvania are people, and with the dawn of the 17th and 18th centuries, the region saw a huge influx of European immigrants who brought their love for the hunt with them across the Atlantic.
Elk were prized game for the early settlers in Central PA. And as the budding new country welcomed in the 1800s, the Eastern Elk, the species that had once roamed the forests as far north as Upstate New York and as far south as Georgia, was beginning to thin.
Already exterminated in Eastern and Western Pennsylvania, the extinction of the Eastern Elk began to spread to the north-central part of the state by the mid-1800s. Not long after the Civil War, the last elk in Pennsylvania had been killed.
Deforestation in Central PA
In addition to unsustainable hunting practices, the 19th century brought a different strain on Elk County and the surrounding region - the logging industry.
Before European settlers made Pennsylvania their home, about 90% of the land was covered with forests. However, the industrializing country needed timber for boats and buildings, and Pennsylvania had plenty to offer.
In the early 1800s, logging companies bought up large tracts of land in the PA wilderness. They harvested the old-growth forests of pine, hardwood, and hemlock, thinning the elk’s natural habitat.
By the end of the century, the Quehanna plateau was shaved clean, and the logging companies withdrew.
The Elks’ Return to Pennsylvania
In 1895, Joseph Rothrock was appointed the first forestry commission in the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters, the organization that’s known today as the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His goal was to purchase the deforested acres from the logging companies to ensure forest regrowth.
In the same year, the Game Commission was created, and along with that came a sense of urgency surrounding endangered species. Elk were one of these species that the commission addressed.
The Game Commission devised a solution that would serve dual purposes. Sheltered within the national park and Jackson Hole Refuge Area, one of the few remaining bastions of America’s elk population was growing too large. Instead of opening these protected areas to hunt, the commission instead decided to transport the elk to an area once teeming with the species - the PA Wilds.
So, in 1913, 50 elk from Yellowstone National Park were herded into a train, shipped across the country, and reintroduced to Clinton and Clearfield counties, 50 years after their species had been wiped out.
Also in the early 1900s, Rothrock led the purchase of several lands that would become state forests and planted millions of trees. This continued through the Great Depression with civil works programs squelching wildfires and nurturing the emerging forests.
Despite the expanding and maturing forests, it wasn’t all rolling fields of clover and easy living for the transplanted Yellowstone elk after their cross-country journey. They were released into their new home (which is quite different from Yellowstone) with no acclimation period. However, just two years after the first boxcar arrived in PA, 95 more elk joined their Yellowstone brothers and sisters in 1915.
While hunting was outlawed until 1921, farmers whose crops fell prey to hungry bull elk and cow elk grew frustrated and occasionally took up arms to defend their crops, and the occasional poacher surely ignored regulations.
Once hunting was opened in the 20s, the population began to dwindle, estimated at just 50 elk by the 1950s. Throughout the second half of the century, frustrated farmers and shaky hunting regulations continued to strain the herd which experienced little growth. But the hearty animals adjusted and regulations were tightened as the century came to a close. The elk population in PA numbered in the 500s by the new millennium.
How Many Elk are in PA Today?
The PA Game Commission’s most recent estimate of the state’s elk population is about 1,000, as of April 2018.
The PA Game Commission works to care for the elk and ensure their success by providing feeding plots and monitoring their health. An example of this is the Dents Run Elk Viewing Area, which is maintained by the game commission as they plant plenty of the food elk love - winter wheat, oats, grasses, and clovers. The elk wear radio collars to keep tabs on the population, along with their specific age of survival and habitat use.
Can You Hunt Elk in PA?
Yes. After years of establishing a strong population of elk and effective hunting regulations, sportsmen and sportswomen are able to apply for a limited number of tags.
There are three seasons as of 2019: an antlered and antlerless archery season in September, an antlered and antlerless general season in November, and an antlerless-only late season in January.
Lucky applicants can be drawn for one tag/season per year. For more information on hunting elk, check out this blog post or this page from the PA Game Commission.
Where Can I See Elk in PA?
If you’re hoping to get a glimpse of some of these majestic creatures in their wild habitat and put some of this Elk County history into perspective, Benezette is one of the best places to see elk in PA. Home to the Elk Country Visitor Center, there are plenty of places to see elk and other wildlife. For more areas to see elk, check out our blog, “The Best Places to See Elk in Benezette, PA”.
Whether it’s a viewing blind overlooking food plots or during a hike through a state park or state forest, the elk herd in Benezette is waiting for you to discover them.