Last May, PJ, Tim, and I dined in the parking lot of the Benezette Hotel, sampling their restaurant’s signature elk burgers and wondering when the hell we’d spot actual elk. The small unincorporated town in Elk County, Pennsylvania marketed itself, after all, as the “Elk Capital of Pennsylvania.” The Elk Country Visitor Center, less than two miles north of the hotel off Winslow Hill Road, hosts the state’s annual drawing for their coveted elk hunting permits, for which I donate $15 or $20 every summer just to be disappointed in mid-August when my number isn’t called.
So while I technically held elk in my hand, photographing an actual living, caring wapiti was proving difficult. The burger itself was pretty good – a 1/3-pound patty that was lean, as expected, and topped with a slice of white American cheese. While waiting for the to-go order to arrive – and at the start of the COVID lockdowns which booted us from the dining room and into the Toyota to feast – I launched into full-tourist mode on the poor masked waitress, seeking Hot Tips on where to locate our target species.
She wasn’t terribly precise in her advice, in all honesty, simply stating there should be some around, though the rainy weather, which would soon evolve into a May snow shower, might have them bedded down. With fewer than 200 residents, according to Census information, Benezette is very much a one-horse town, with a few houses carved into the sides of the rolling hills and screened by stately hemlocks and evergreens. And what I assumed, at a glance from our parking spot, was a horse feeding behind a fenced yard at the end of someone’s driveway was actually a cow elk.
Soon, more elk appeared – a dozen or so females herded together. We polished off our burgers and eased forward for photos. Clearly no strangers to the spotlight, the herd obliged, grazing down to the paved road and through a drainage gully that split the difference between homes. Other vehicles waited for them to pass but were clearly disinterested in capturing the moment on film. In a sense, it reminded me greatly of Big Pine Key and their Key Deer population. These communities have natural attractions that lure in tourism dollars but often interrupt daily life to varying degrees of irritation.
The similarities stop there as Big Pine is, of course, in the subtropics and not the Allegheny. There’d also be a tremendous difference between the two animals if you hit an elk with your truck rather than the diminutive whitetail subspecies – speaking of, I never did ask how the Benezette Hotel sourced their elk burgers. And though these beasts are not endangered like the Key Deer, they’ve only recently returned to the scene in Pennsylvania in enviable numbers.
Familiar to most as icons of the western U.S., elk historically roamed the east coast from New York to Georgia but were extirpated by poor land practices and over-hunting. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), by the opening of the 19th century elk were exterminated in southeastern Pennsylvania and only rarely seen west of the Allegheny River. By the 1870s, the last of the herd was gone.
Despite hostility from farmers – their anger proven to be founded and unfounded over time – elk were re-introduced to the state as early as 1913 with hunting seasons established in the 1920s. Again though, poaching, poor habitat, and disease compromised these efforts and ended recreational hunting. The population sputtered with fewer than 100 animals for much of the 20th century.
By the 1980s, the tide turned. Research and outreach efforts embraced the value of quality habitat, not just for the large ungulates but for all resident species. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) contributed money and education for the purchase of state lands and sound land management plans in the heart of elk country. In 2001, the elk population had reached the point that a recreational hunt was held once more with the fees for applications and permits funding state wildlife management programs.
Adaptable as deer species tend to be, these elk have learned to interact and thrive among the limited human activity around Benezette. Tim guided us around the narrow mountain roads to a popular location where other explorers hoping to catch sight of these animals commonly visit. State Game Land 311 was purchased with funding at least partially provided by the RMEF. Commonly known as Winslow Hill Elk Viewing Area, the site is a panoramic of undulating countryside. On the first distant slope to the west, five bulls fed in the wet green grass, their fuzzy antlers slightly polyping above chocolate browlines. Below the paved parking area, a solitary deer browsed while a chimney puffed white smoke from a home belonging to someone who did the right things in life.
From there, we couldn’t help but see bull elk, many squeezed close to the pavement by the steep shoulders of the road and the parallel Bennett Branch Sinnemahoning Creek. As of March 2020, there were about 1,350 elk in Pennsylvania, according to the PGC. A hunt, at least on the public lands near Benezette, would be a slam dunk, I thought. Indeed, success rates for antlered bulls are annually well over 90%. By the time I’ve accrued enough preference points to draw one of the handful of bull permits allotted by the state – 36 in 2020 – my infirmities will appreciate that accessibility.
For that moment, though, simply seeing Pennsylvania’s elk was a treat. It was another reminder of the variety and history of wildlife in this country, the struggles it endured as the nation was settled, and the recovery it’s made thanks to the army of hunters, conservationists, and agencies working together in a common appreciation for witnessing the elk thrive once more in its former range.
(Ledger hunting correspondent Ian Nance can be reached at [email protected] Follow on Facebook @PolkOutdoors; Twitter @Good_Hunt; and Instagram @inance880)