‘Big, Bad’ Pennsylvania Elk

December 23, 2016
Pennsylvania elk
S.H. LeePennsylvania elk, originally from the western U.S., were transported east in the early 1900s.

You might not know it, but deer and moose aren’t the only antlered giants roaming the Northeast. Elk can still be found in north-central Pennsylvania.

The 1,000 or so elk currently living in the state aren’t descended from native, pre-Colonial herds. Overhunting wiped out the Eastern elk by the 1870s, according to Jeremy Banfield, a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) who focuses on elk management.

With the hope of re-establishing a herd and eventually reintroducing a hunt, the PGC transported 177 Rocky Mountain elk to Pennsylvania between 1913 and 1926. Many of them came from Yellowstone National Park, where herds had grown so large that animals were starving. Those elk were the progenitors of the current herd, which wildlife managers try to keep within a 3,500-square-mile area, 70 percent of which is public lands.

Elk are not as big as moose, but they’re still plenty large. Bull elk, which stand almost 5 feet tall at the shoulder, can weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Adult females, or cows, which are a few inches shorter, often weigh 500 to 600 pounds. Males’ antlers can grow as much as 1 inch a day, weigh up to 15 pounds per side, and are shed each year between March and May.

It is legal to pick up shed antlers, though not in keeping with Leave No Trace practices. But it is illegal to feed elk, which Banfield says some people do in late winter in hopes of attracting bulls that will drop their antlers. Feeding the animals causes them to gather in larger numbers and increases the risk of spreading terminal illnesses, such as chronic wasting disease, which has afflicted Pennsylvania’s deer population.

During the mating season, from mid-September to mid-October, bull elk will spar with their antlers and make distinctive loud sounds, called bugling, to establish dominance over other bulls and to attract cows. “It’s a crazy sound,” Banfield says. “The bull is advertising, ‘I’m big and bad and awesome.’”

Elk eat grasses, plants, leaves, and bark—up to 15 pounds of vegetation a day in the summer. “The biggest limiting factor for elk in the Northeast is herbaceous habitat,” Banfield says. “Keeping that grassland open is our biggest challenge.”

The state doesn’t clear timber to make open space for elk, but it has thinned shrubby areas and planted grasses for them. Officials also maintain hemlock stands and groves of white and red pine that offer the elk shade in summer and protection from the wind in winter.

The current management area is about half full, in terms of its ability to host elk, Banfield estimates. He doesn’t foresee the elk expanding beyond that area for decades to come, although the herd is growing.

The number of elk hunters may kill in the annual November hunt, established in 2001 and managed by the PGC, is based on the population count and human-elk conflicts. In 2015, the state issued 116 licenses by lottery, and hunters killed 85 elk.

As with moose, the best time of day to spot elk is at dawn or dusk. The mating season is popular for observing elk because of all that bugling and sparring, but it is also more dangerous, since the bulls can be aggressive. Elk watchers are advised to keep their distance. The game commission maintains several viewing areas with perks like blinds and portable toilets; go to visitpago.com/elkviewing for more information. Hikers and backcountry camping fans may like the 19-mile Elk Trail. The route, which begins near Benezette, Pa., follows old roads, railroad grades, and utility rights-of-way through a part of the elk management area known, appropriately enough, as Elk State Forest.

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Heather Stephenson

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.