Call & Response: Tracking the Once Elusive Wild Pennsylvania Elk

August 26, 2019
pennsylvania wild elk
Governor Tom Wolf on flickr/Creative Commons x2, Jeff MitchellClouds shroud the hills and forests—and possibly the occasional Pennsylvania Wild elk hiding therein.

I step out of my car, gravel crunching underfoot. The warm September afternoon is filled with the aroma of sun-baked pine and fern, and I breathe it in deeply. As I stretch my legs, my mind wanders ahead of me, into the wilderness.

I’ve driven more than two hours from my home in northeastern Pennsylvania to the Quehanna Wild Area, southeast of the Allegheny National Forest, in the hope of seeing wild elk during the fall breeding season, known as the rut. These massive creatures are surprisingly elusive, and even though I’ve timed my visit for this period of increased activity, I don’t know if I’ll be successful. At the very least, I hope to hear the male’s haunting, piercing bugle.

The 50,000-acre Quehanna Wild Area, together with the surrounding Moshannon and Elk state forests, is home to herds of wild Pennsylvania elk. While the elk have become a premier tourist attraction, with dedicated viewing areas surrounded by the civilized infrastructure of parking lots, kiosks, and fences, I’m looking for a different experience. Wildlife of this size are rare in the Northeast, and I want to see the magnificent animals in the wild, on the trail, away from the crowds, without fences between us. There’s no better place to give it a try than Quehanna, with its isolation, beauty, and vast network of trails.

I shoulder my pack and slip into the woods on narrow Wykoff Trail, nearly obscured by ferns. I hike across meadows and clear streams and under a forest of oak, maple, and an infrequent red spruce. Thickets of mountain laurel cover the understory, their pink blossoms from June long gone. When I reach Big Spring Trail, massive sandstone boulders clothed in moss and lichen loom above me. Around every bend, I strain to see a herd grazing through the forest. But there’s none to be seen.

The trail drops down into a gorge and enters a tunnel of rhododendron, creating a jungle of green beneath hints of yellow, orange, and red. Clear rivulets seep from the ground, joining Big Spring as it cascades down rocks and ledges. I pause to take a break. This spot feels primeval, as if it has always been this way. But I know that this forest, and the elk now living in it, are the result of dramatic changes.

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Most people don’t realize the Mid-Atlantic was once home to native elk, commonly known as the Eastern elk. Through the 1800s, the numbers of Eastern elk dwindled quickly, primarily due to overhunting. By the 1850s, the animal was a rare sight, and by the late 1870s, the Eastern elk was extirpated in Pennsylvania.

While deer were also hunted during the nineteenth century, we don’t know why deer survived where elk didn’t. It’s possible the elk was targeted more aggressively due to its size, or that deer can reproduce more quickly, sustaining their population. “Elk have nutritional requirements that are different and far exceed that of a whitetail deer,” says Jeremy Banfield, an elk biologist who works for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “Elk prefer grasslands and herbaceous openings to woodlands. While deer browse, elk graze. Elk will browse in the winter when food becomes scarce.”

In 1913, 50 elk were brought from Yellowstone National Park to Pennsylvania by the Game Commission and released for hunting purposes. According to Banfield, other than some physical differences due to environmental factors, the Western elk were genetically identical to the Eastern elk they were replacing. In 1915, 95 more Yellowstone elk were released across the state. Further elk imports followed, for a total of 177 animals introduced to Pennsylvania between 1913 and 1926. By the 1930s, the population had reached about 500 head but fluctuated over the ensuing decades. Eventually, only the herds around what is now Quehanna survived.

“From the 1930s to the 1970s, that was the dark period for the elk in Pennsylvania,” Banfield says, with the Great Depression and World War II diverting the nation’s attention. “There was no research, and little was known about them.” What’s more, Banfield says, locals saw the elk as a nuisance almost from the very beginning. In addition to the occasional traffic accident: “Elk could wreak havoc on a farm field, doing far more damage than a deer.”

Research on the herd began in the 1970s, focusing on population, habitat selection, and ecology. Today, elk hunting is legal in Pennsylvania in three distinct seasons; the number of tags allocated depends on the herd count and the current rate of conflicts involving the animals, such as car accidents or property damage. Hunters submit an application and pay a fee to be entered into a lottery. The hunters who receive a tag are permitted to hunt within a certain zone, for either a bull or a cow.

By the 1990s, the elk population was increasing dramatically due to improved habitat management and a decline in poaching. As the animals began to attract tourists with vacation budgets, attitudes toward the elk changed. These days, the herd is beloved by visitors and those with vacation homes in the area. Even lifelong locals have warmed to the elk, seeing the animals less as a nuisance than as an asset, albeit a complicated one, Banfield says. Pennsylvania elk currently number more than 1,000—the only herd of its kind in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic.

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I’m not here to hunt. I’m here to watch and to listen. I continue on the trail in the bright September sunshine. Whenever I cross a meadow, a popular elk hangout, I scan the woods carefully, hope bubbling in my chest. No luck. Regardless, I relish the isolation and the lack of human-made noise. There are no distant highways, factories, or malls. There aren’t even any other people. All I hear are birds, trickling springs, and a breeze through the forest. A monarch butterfly occasionally floats by, heading south on its long journey.

I descend into a gorge where hemlocks shade a picturesque stream dotted with cascades and pools, trout darting into watery crevices as I pass. I reach a small campsite just before sunset and quickly set up my tent. As I crawl into my sleeping bag, I fight to stay awake long enough to hear a bull elk bugle. But all I hear is silence under a brilliant display of stars.

The elk rut lasts through September and October. Females, called cows, and juveniles, called yearlings, form groups, known as harems, with one or two bulls apiece. Bulls aggressively defend their harems and fight for dominance to breed with the cows. The bull’s bugle serves a few different functions: to advertise himself to the cows; to warn other bulls to stay away; and to announce his intention to fight for the opportunity to mate.

I awake early the next day and get my gear together, beginning to resign myself to the possibility of no elk. The morning is crisp and cool, with veils of mist levitating in the hollows and gorges. As I sail down the trail, my thoughts shift from elk to my post-hike meal. Visions of cheeseburgers, onion rings, and mozzarella sticks dance in my head, followed by a duet of milkshakes and pie. When I tire of food, I think about the upcoming week, about work, about everything I have to do.

Soon thereafter I don’t think about anything at all. I just hike the miles through the forested wilderness.

The trail turns right for a slight climb across a carpet of ground pine. And then I hear a distinct crack, as if a large branch had fallen from a tree. I stop in my tracks and look up. Fifty feet away is a herd of elk: several cows and yearlings. The mothers—about 500 pounds each, the size of a small horse—eye me warily as they browse through the forest, grunting at the yearlings to stay close. Their massive bulk triggers an instinct of fear within me, but that soon passes, leaving me mesmerized by their grace. The herd moves through the forest with ease, as if they’re one unit. Before long they’ve melted into the laurel, almost like a mirage.

I shake my head, already doubting what I’ve just seen. To be so close to these magnificent creatures alone, in the wild, is unforgettable. For 30 seconds, we were two species sharing the same habitat on the same terms. When, a few minutes later, I see a whitetail deer run across the trail, I’m underwhelmed. After the elk, it’s like watching a chihuahua scamper through the woods.

I descend along another stream, with more waterfalls, more moss-covered boulders, and more jungles of rhododendron. I follow East Cross Connector, passing pine forests and meadows; Teaberry Trail, with a series of views over Red Run; Quehanna Highway, traversing forests of spruce and red pine; Bridge Trail, along Mosquito Creek; Crawford Vista Trail, high above the gorge; Bellefonte Posse Trail, carpeted with moss; and Kunes Camp Trail, along which a creek runs red from the tannins in the swamps upstream.

The forest aroma in the warm sun is intoxicating. I circle a large pond, the water reflecting blue sky and bleached tree trunks overhead. Duck and geese float motionless in the distance. In the quiet, I pause to listen for bugling, but I hear only the remote rapids of Mosquito Creek. Fall colors are spreading across the Quehanna plateau, the change of seasons well underway.

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The future for the elk in Pennsylvania is good,” Banfield says. “Population growth completely depends on habitat that will support them.” To improve the elk’s 3,500-square-mile range in north-central Pennsylvania, the game commission, together with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, preserves meadows, fields, and other herbaceous open spaces through a combination of timber harvests, mowing, and prescribed fires. (Prior to the arrival of Europeans, meadows existed due to fires started naturally or by American Indians. The meadows not only provided habitat for elk but also for bison, another species once native to the East.) Banfield reiterates that the elk’s future depends on the public maintaining an interest.

With about 30 miles logged, I begin the final mile back to my car. I’m looking forward to a fresh change of clothes and that post-hike meal, but I’m also thinking back on how special this trek has been. I’ve seen elk in the wild, and I’ve had the beauty of Quehanna all to myself. Experiences like this are few and far between, and I’ll remember this years from now.

Suddenly a piercing, haunting sound jolts me out of my reverie. At first I think it’s a loon, until I remember there aren’t any ponds or lakes nearby. And then it hits me: A bull elk is bugling!

I hurry down the trail to the nearest meadow, my backpack bouncing off my shoulders. More bugles reverberate through the forest. I reach the clearing, and there it is: a majestic bull elk, 8 feet tall from foot to antler tip, with a sprawling 10-point rack, standing along the treeline. Its wet nose glistens in the early evening light, heavy breath from its nostrils producing clouds of mist rising in the cool air. 

The bull lifts its head and bugles again and again. I can’t help but smile. When it turns and saunters into the forest, its rack doesn’t touch a single branch or leaf. Hidden among the trees, it bugles once more, the sound penetrating the wilderness. And then it is gone. 


PLAN YOUR OWN ELK QUEST:

When to visit

Mid-September through mid-October is the ideal time to catch both the elk rut and fall foliage. Or try mid-June through early July, when the mountain laurel and rhododendron are blooming. Be sure to wear fluorescent orange during hunting season; learn more at pgc.pa.gov.

Fees and Permits

The Quehanna Wild Area is open to the public all year, with no fees to hike or camp.Permits for primitive backpack camping are not required unless you are using the same site for more than one night or are in a group larger than 10 people. Parking is generally available near trailheads, with no permits or passes required.

Trailheads

The primary trailheads are located at Beaver Run (41.261354, -78.258126), Hoover Farm (41.229470, -78.191818.), and Laurel Draft (41.278711, -78.140127).

Camping

The best primitive backcountry campsites are located at Upper Jerry Run, Laurel Draft, Arch Springs, Sanders Draft, Mosquito Creek, and Meeker Run. For more information, visit dcnr.pa.gov.

Trails

Quehanna Wild Area has an extensive network of trails, with countless loop options possible. Trails hiked for this story inlude Quehanna, Teaberry, Lincoln, East Cross Connector, Bridge, Crawford Vista Extension, Bellefonte Posse, Kunes Camp, Big Spring, Sevinsky, and Gore Draft. Most of these can be linked to make an excellent backpacking loop of about 35 miles total.

Maps

Free maps are available by calling Elk State Forest at 814-486-3353 (featuring the northern half of Quehanna) and Moshannon State Forest at 814-765-0821 (featuring all of Quehanna). Downloadable maps are also available online.

Wildlife

In addition to elk, black bear, coyote, deer, rattlesnake, and fox also live in the wild area. No nuisance bear problems have been reported in Quehanna.


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Jeff Mitchell

Jeff Mitchell is the author of several books, including Hiking the Endless Mountains, and is the district attorney of Wyoming County, Pa.