The Everyday Hunter: Wild AND Free

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If you’re wild about wildlife, the best day-trip anywhere is to the little town of Benezette, in Elk County, Pennsylvania. Drive up Winslow Hill to the Visitor’s Center and beyond. Take in the sights of magnificent Rocky Mountain Elk in their wild habitat. Hear the high-pitched bugling of the bulls, one of the most exhilarating sounds in nature.

“But these are not really wild animals,” some people say. “Those elk are just livestock, the antlered version of Carnation’s contented cows.” Nope, not true. Some people think the Pennsylvania elk are on par with deer in a petting zoo or a bear at a carnival sideshow. But Pennsylvania’s elk are far from tame.

Native eastern elk became extinct in the 1870s, before states launched game agencies and began to regulate hunting by creating game laws, establishing seasons, setting bag limits, and instituting principles of conservation. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Michigan have all reintroduced free-ranging wild elk populations. In the last decade Virginia and West Virginia have brought elk back, and feasibility studies have been completed in Illinois and New York.

Pennsylvania’s wild elk herd is the oldest and best known restored herd in the east. Introduced in 1913 with 50 elk from flourishing populations in Yellowstone National Park, the herd now numbers roughly 1,400. The challenge today isn’t survival; it’s keeping the number in balance with its habitat and minimizing conflict with humans, while giving everyone access to them. No farmer can afford elk ravaging crops and no driver wants to smack an elk with his Prius, but everyone loves seeing them.

As majestic as the elk are, this free-ranging population would become a nuisance if permitted to outgrow its habitat. Hunters harvest about 50 bulls and 130 cows each year to keep the herd stable. With hunters, we can have a few viable wild elk populations in the East. Without them, either too many elk or no elk at all.

Although hunters are good for the herd, some people say, “What fun would it be to shoot one of those elk?” Or, “It would be like fishing in a bucket!” The fact that they congregate on Winslow Hill (and a few other less prominent places) might cause someone to think that, but it’s the habitat that draws them. That’s where their needs are met. That’s why they feel safe. These elk really are wild, and it would be dangerous for a person to try to touch one.

Besides elk, you might see other wild animals on Winslow Hill — bears, eagles, turkeys and more. On every trip I’ve seen at least one of these species in addition to elk. None of them are tame, not the bears, nor the bald eagles. The wild gobblers are not barnyard birds. And the deer are not domesticated. They’re all wild, and to whatever degree they tolerate people, it’s because they feel safe.

These elk get no daily ration of grain. They’re never handled by humans except when one needs medical attention or is involved in scientific study. In those cases they’re handled by professional trained biologists, just like the mountain lions the college student who is my neighbor studies in northern California.

Many cows drop their calves in the Winslow Hill area in June. Plenty of natural food is available. As the summer fades, more bulls begin showing up in anticipation of the annual rut, but they remain wild animals. September is the best time to see them.

In the established elk viewing areas they’re willing to tolerate the presence of people, so have your binoculars and camera ready. Anywhere else they will avoid human intrusion. That’s essential to hunting wild, free-ranging Rocky Mountain elk under fair chase conditions.

The benefit of the Pennsylvania elk goes far beyond hunting. These animals provide the most accessible viewing opportunity anywhere for large wild animals. More than 75 million people are within a half-day drive of them, and seeing them is totally free. It’s a surprise that so few people take advantage of it.

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.