Seeing an animal in the wild is an often rare, but always beautiful experience. Even more so with such a majestic species as the North American elk.
Pennsylvania is the home to the largest herd of elk in the northeastern United States, so you'll have a great chance to get a close look at these magnificent animals.
Zach McCloskey is an Education Specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
"Such a large majestic animal to be roaming the hills of Pennsylvania, it's something completely unique, and a lot of people still don't know about it," says McCloskey. "People just love the elk, they fall in love with them."
But the chance to fall in love with the elk almost never happened, as the tremendous success story that is the elk herds of Pennsylvania was very nearly a tragedy.
Back in the late 1800's, the native species, the Eastern elk, was completely exterminated. Vast herds once roamed free throughout portions of the Atlantic coast, from as far north as northern New York, to as far south as Central Georgia.
Hunting and habitat destruction took its inevitable toll on the population, and in 1877 it was said the last Pennsylvania elk was killed by a hunter. Ironically, an exploding population out west led to the re-establishment of elk in Pennsylvania.
"They were looking for states to take some elk and reintroduce them back to their native areas," says McCloskey. "So in 1913, a program began with 50 elk trained in from Yellowstone National Park, and released not far from here in Benezette and the Dent's Run area. So they brought them back, and over a period of about 13 years, they reintroduced 177 elk."
The story could easily have ended there, as the population , for a number of reasons, began to ebb, until only about 40 remained by 1973. Things began to look up for the elk after that, as state agencies began an active management plan to help restore the herds.
"A lot more was learned about elk habitat," says McCloskey. "They're different than deer here in Pennsylvania, they're primarily grazers, so more habitat was added. Also, a lot of strip mine reclamation projects happened. When they're converted and cleaned up, it turned into great elk habitat, and that really accounted for a lot of success and growth of the herd, just better management and better habitat."
And that success has been nothing short of amazing! The Elk's numbers have grown to almost a thousand, and a drive through the appropriately named Elk County provides a wildlife lover's bonanza!
There's been a economic windfall as well.
The surrounding towns benefit from the influx of tourists, and there's even a beautiful new visitor's center that opened in 2010.
The center was funded by a unique public and private partnership, and was an immediate hit, proving that ecology and economy can co-exist.
Rawley Cogan is the President and CEO of the Keystone Elk Alliance, one of the groups instrumental in construction of the Visitor's Center.
"Last year alone, 217,000 people through our doors, generating lots of jobs, and generating lots of revenue," says Cogan. "It's spinning the wheels of economic development in eco-tourism. We like to call it marrying up of conservation and economic development."
The visitor's center provides a wonderful interactive environment in which to learn about the elk. Education is the key, one almost as important as the surrounding habitat in keeping the herds healthy.
"Education is our number one priority, which is why we have this facility," says Cogan. "We feel if people understand elk country, if they understand what elk country is all about, then they're more likely to support our efforts to conserve and enhance Pennsylvania's elk Country."
The small town of Benezette is the best place to observe the herds. The surrounding area is closed off to the limited hunting season, a sanctuary of sorts that makes finding these graceful giants almost easy.
Watching the elk meandering free through the country side is an almost transcendant experience, and an affirmation that men and animals can co-exist peacefully, and to each other's benefit.
"Bringing people in here and educating them about conservation is very important, but also, again, that's bringing them here. They're supporting local businesses, they're also giving money back that goes right into the land, into conservation, right back to the animals and the natural resources."
"What we're trying to do is get people to think bigger, get people to think here are the life requisite that elk need, and they're pretty much the same as what man needs," says Cogan. "If we take care of this place, we'll take care of ourselves, we want people to think on a little higher level in terms of let's be good stewards of the land."
The Elk Country Visitor's Center is the perfect spot to begin your journey to discover the Pennsylvania elk. You can visit their website here.