Elk are look­ing to make a come­back

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake

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.

Sad news

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.

jamiedrake­out­doors@outlook.com

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