Elk are looking to make a comeback
I thought the one-hour sturgeon season on Michigan’s Black Lake was extreme.
This past February, 261 anglers hit the ice hoping to catch one of the seven sturgeon in the quota set for harvest. The odds just weren’t that favorable for being one of the lucky few to land one of those prehistoric behemoths.
In March, though, Pennsylvania oneupped Michigan in the realm of extreme hunting and fishing. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which has chapters nationwide, auctioned off a special Elk Conservation Tag set aside in Pennsylvania and someone paid $85,000 for it in an auction.
Elk have long been a symbol of the American West. Many people think of the wild and remote open lands in states like Montana and Wyoming when they think of elk. But elk were once native to almost every part of the United States, inhabiting just about every niche except the driest deserts and swampiest wetlands. Millions of these large animals roamed all across North America, but by 1877, elk were completely extinct in the eastern parts of the United States.
Now, many eastern states are working hard to reintroduce them. The forests where native elk once lived are now providing habitat for descendants of Rocky Mountain elk. Kentucky, Pennsylvania and even Virginia boast their own elk populations, which are growing annually. West Virginia is hoping to follow with its own reintroduction program this year.
Pennsylvania has an interesting elk history. The native eastern elk were hunted to extinction in the 1870s. To right this, elk from the burgeoning Yellowstone population of Wyoming were relocated to Pennsylvania in 1913. This was done without much of a reintroduction plan or wildlife management approach. The animals were simply transported across country via train and dropped in several Pennsylvania counties. Talk about a shock to the system. It’s a wonder any of those elk survived. Everything was different — the terrain, the food, the weather, but it’s no surprise that the descendants of these intrepid pioneers are so hardy and hale.
In the 1980s, Pennsylvania began effectively managing its herd with a scientific approach that has been refined over the last three decades. In the beginning, elk were fitted with collars to monitor their movements. With knowledge of their home range, habitat was planted with clover and alfalfa to encourage foraging on public lands. And a better means of counting elk was developed so the herd could be accurately estimated and managed appropriately. This method of management enabled the population of elk to rebound from around 50 to more than 900 today. 2001 was the first year the Pennsylvania Game Commission opened an elk hunting season in over 70 years.
Thousands of hunters in Pennsylvania enter their names annually for a chance to get an elk tag through a state-run lottery. The number of tags has risen substantially over the past 15 years, from just 30 issued that first year to 108 last season, evidence that the elk population is thriving and increasing with every passing year.
Winners of the lottery can purchase an elk tag for $25 (resident) or $250 (nonresidents). Of course, if you aren’t lucky enough to win an elk tag through the lottery, maybe you can pony up $85,000 to get the one elk tag that they auction off every year to raise conservation funds.
To some people the notion that a hunter would be willing to pay that kind of money for the chance to get an elk is pretty extreme. Thankfully, the money raised through this auction will benefit the management of these majestic creatures and improve and expand their habitat in
Pennsylvania. The elk lottery ensures a sustainable herd, planned growth and hopefully more tags in the future.
While a trip to Yellowstone is certainly in my future, it’s nice knowing I don’t have to take a plane to see an elk. I can just hop in my car and take a scenic drive to Pennsylvania or Virginia
(which hopes to open a similar hunting season by 2018) or West Virginia, which will begin reintroducing elk this year.
Even our own state has explored the possibility of starting its own elk reintroduction program in Garrett and Allegany counties, but so far the idea hasn’t garnered enough support. This could change someday though, and we might have our own herd of these native giants gracing the rugged mountain
forests of Western Maryland.
There was some other — unfortunately sad — news coming out of Pennsylvania last week.
One of the eggs in the Hanover, Pa., nest I mentioned in a previous column hatched on March 28. Sadly the hatchling died just a day later. The other egg, laid almost 50 days ago, will not hatch at this point. There will be no
eaglets to watch grow and fledge in Hanover this year.
I’ve enjoyed tuning in to the live video of the eagle nest on my phone every morning the past few months and listening to the wind blow through the treetops and birdsong fill the forest air, along with thousands of other people across the world. Rarely are we afforded an opportunity such as this to observe nature so up close and personal without leaving the comfort of our living rooms.
In a world where technology practically guarantees instant gratification in every facet of human existence, it can be difficult when Mother Nature reminds us that she’s still in charge.
She’s a powerful force we can’t always control. I’ll be tuning in again next year to see what unfolds for this pair of eagles that are so much a part of viewers’ lives and hope for a more successful outcome.