The elk is merely the second-largest deer in North America, behind the moose. But with bull elks often weighing over 700 pounds and wielding antlers that could scratch a nine-foot ceiling, they’re still a formidable animal. And unlike the reclusive moose, which doesn’t form herds and is limited to the northern parts of the continent, the elk is more widespread in the lower 48 states.
At least, it used to be.
In the early 1800s, hunting and deforestation greatly reduced elk coast to coast. The Merriam’s elk, a subspecies found mainly in Arizona, disappeared in the first years of the 20th century. California’s diminutive tule elk almost did the same, having been reduced from half a million animals to just a single pair in the 1870s. Around the same time, the eastern elk was wiped out completely.
But that wasn’t the end of the story for elk in the eastern United States. By 1913, a reintroduction effort began in the eastern elk’s last refuge—a stretch of north-central Pennsylvania that today is the heart of elk country in the state.
Finding the key to healthy elk populations
For many decades after reintroduction, the elk population in Pennsylvania lingered in the double digits as habitat was limited and elk were targeted as a threat to crops. In the 1980s, there were still just 120–150 elk. But since then, managers have benefitted from a better understanding of elk behavior, reducing elk conflicts with farmers mainly by creating food plots that better address the need for foraging habitat.
“A food plot is just an herbaceous opening, planted usually with a brassica mix,” said Bill May, who was a food and cover supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission before retiring in 2007.
May has also been active with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) since the 1980s. RMEF funds habitat and purchases land, which it then turns over to the state for conservation to support the elk population, which is now as much as 1,200 animals and has supported a hunting season since the early 2000s.
Fees from hunting licenses and tags provide funding for elk habitat. While the general elk hunting season is one week at the start of November, the hunter who holds the Governor’s Conservation Tag has nine weeks. Every year, that special tag is sold by a single nonprofit, which must send at least 20% of proceeds back to the Game Commission. In 2019, the RMEF auctioned off the tag for $150,000—all of which went back into projects.
“They basically give 100% of what that tag sells for,” May said. “So there’s some big bucks coming into habitat from the RMEF.”
In September, the RMEF announced over $1.1 million in grants for the upcoming year, with the nonprofit directly contributing roughly $60,000 and leveraging the rest from partners like the Game Commission, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and other sportsmen groups. The funds will support work ranging from the removal of invasive buckthorn shrubs, the treatment of hemlocks to kill an exotic pest and the creation of early successional forest habitat—essentially turning mature forest into young forest to increase the diversity of the ecosystem as a whole.
Early successional forest lacks large trees, so sunlight can reach the ground and support the growth of grasslands and shrubby plants that elk graze. The habitat also benefits an array of species like turkey, American woodcock, ruffed grouse, migrating songbirds, white-tailed deer, black bear and eastern cottontail.
Young forest in Pennsylvania and other states has long been declining, as farmland that may have been cleared a century ago has returned to mature forest, and natural disturbances like wildfires are largely absent. As just one of many consequences, the ruffed grouse population in Pennsylvania has shrunk by 30% over the last three decades. The creation of early successional habitat could eventually reverse such trends.
Seeking out elk on the Sinnemahoning
Based in Cameron County, where his house is surrounded by steep, thickly forested ridges and is reachable only by a swinging footbridge, May now works as an elk hunting guide and outfitter. On an evening in early October, during the peak of elk breeding season, or rut, he took me to look for elk at several hotspots that he knows along Sinnemahoning Creek.
The first was a private residence where the homeowners don’t allow hunting, but welcome elk to their expanse of short grass at the edge of the trees. Trimming the grass keeps it green through the winter, which the elk like.
“Little things like this help,” May said.
Elk are most visible in the early morning and evening, but as the sun disappeared behind the hills no elk could be seen, even though some had been there the day before. “They just keep moving this time of year,” May said. But a line of turkeys could be seen crossing the turf, taking advantage of the grasses like the elk do. Soon they disappeared single-file into the woods.
As May’s battered truck bumped along the road to another of his favorite spots, an adult and juvenile bald eagle took flight from a tree along the creek. Still, there was no sign of elk.
Retreating to the main road, a family of white-tailed deer was silhouetted by the fading rays of sunset as it crossed the wide creek, which would be large enough to call a river if it weren’t winding through an area that understandably sets a higher bar for its natural splendor.
In the twilight, May brought me to Sinnemahoning State Park—a sure bet to see a herd of elk. Indeed, in a field below George B. Stevenson dam, the forest rising steeply above in every direction, a bull elk watched over his harem of over a dozen cows, a couple calves and one smaller male that hardly posed a challenge for dominance.
From a path atop the dam’s spillway, several hundred yards away, May raised a long curved horn and blasted a bull elk’s call toward the herd. Two dozen furry heads stopped grazing to turn, and the bull elk returned the call, its distinctive bugle echoing through the valley.