If you think wildlife tourism is too far away and requires too much time and money, it doesn’t. The trip you should take is very close to home, it’s fun, and it’s free.
A half million people per year go to Yellowstone Park to see bison, but that’s a long way from anywhere. About 30,000 fly to Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park in Alaska where more than 2,000 brown bears live and the salmon spawn concentrates many bears in one place. Florida’s Everglades has alligators and plenty of birds, but you’ll need to hire a guide with a boat to take you into that enormous grassy river.
Not far from western New York is an equally great wildlife show. You can leave Jamestown and in a couple of hours be watching magnificent Rocky Mountain elk in Benezette, Pennsylvania. You don’t need to hire a guide or spend money on local transportation. Just go.
Drive up Winslow Hill slowly and keep your eyes peeled because elk can pop out anywhere. Stop at the Elk Country Visitor Center and catch the movie in the new 4D sensory surround theater. See dioramas, artifacts and other display items and learn about elk conservation, natural history, and behavior. The large bank of windows offers a panoramic view of a field where you’ll probably see elk in the evening. Walking paths put you within a few steps of smaller fields. If you’re unable to walk far, you can use the easy handicap accessibility.
Then drive farther up the hill to two other elk viewing areas. In the last hour of daylight you may see dozens, maybe as many as 100 elk, plus other wildlife. On each of the eight trips I’ve made, I’ve seen something in addition to elk — mature whitetail bucks, black bears, bald eagles, wild turkeys, and I recently got a close-up look at a turkey vulture.
Elk are native to Pennsylvania, but were an extirpated species until the Pennsylvania Game Commission began restocking them in 1913. Today, a breeding population of more than 850 elk roam Elk County and Cameron County. A limited hunting season keeps the herd in check so animals don’t expand into areas where they will conflict with people.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this remarkable wildlife show is about hunting. The place of Pennsylvania elk is much bigger than that. The Elk Country Alliance is about conservation, not hunting, and focuses on wildlife habitat and educating the public.
If you’re an educator, take a class on a field trip. If that’s not possible, the Visitor Center has a distance learning program. They’ll send you a trunk full of elk-related props and artifacts, and use online software applications to interact with your students. It costs… nothing.
Elk may give you the impression that they’re tame, but they’re simply acclimated to people here. This is not a zoo and these are wild animals. The elk are free to go anywhere they please, but you need to stay behind barriers. You can go in any season and be virtually assured of seeing elk. In September the bulls will be bugling, a sound as wild as you’ll hear anywhere. The point of it all is that wildlife is a resource that needs all of us to understand and appreciate it.
So get in the car and head for Benezette, PA, just south of St. Mary’s in Elk County. Find it on a map. Search the websites that give you all the details I don’t have space to give you. Take your binoculars and a camera. There will be something to see and something to photograph — guaranteed. It won’t cost you a penny unless you stay overnight, shop at the Elk Center gift shop, ride the touring wagon, watch the movie, or eat a meal at one of the local eateries.
It may be hard to believe that the most accessible, least expensive wildlife show on earth is within easy driving distance, and it’s on par with anything you’d spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to see. If you don’t go, you’re missing a truly great opportunity.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting , he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.