How Pennsylvania Manages Its Wild Elk

By Nick Wesdock

Wildlife Conservation Officer Jason Wagner (far left) stands in front of a large audience at the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Elk Expo in Benezette last month.

Image Credit: Doty McDowell/PGC

Tens of thousands of hunters and wildlife advocates across Pennsylvania recently met at the Great Outdoor Elk Expo to discuss management and conservation of the state’s wild elk herd.

The once extirpated elk were reintroduced in the early 19th century and populations have since rebounded largely because of events such as this along with state agency efforts, partnerships and public support. In addition, the novelty of a previously extirpated animal draws support and drives tourism in the area.

Today, the Pennsylvania wild elk herd is estimated to be somewhere between 900 and 1,000 animals, according to Jeremy Banfield, elk biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC).

Maintaining habitat for that many animals, however, is no small task. The game commission, which manages state game lands, and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages state forests, are the primary agencies that deal with elk and elk habitat management. “Unfortunately we are two separate agencies, but we do work very well together,” Banfield said.

The agencies’ major responsibilities include forest thinning to promote early successional forest growth for wintertime browsing, mowing just over 2,000 acres of herbaceous grassland at least once annually throughout the management range, and cultivating herbaceous grassland on a three to five-year rotation. As Banfield pointed out, these methods are different and far more involved than methods for elk management in the western U.S. One way the agencies are trying to improve, however, is by getting away from mowing and moving toward prescribed burning.

“We’re literally planting herbaceous habitat in the east where as in the west, herbaceous habitat is naturally abundant,” Banfield said, noting that it will take five to 10 years to gain the training and expertise needed to host prescribed burns safely and effectively. Even so, this method has its limits in the humid eastern climate. “Our primary windows to burn are early spring and late fall.”

Pennsylvania’s elk herd wasn’t always so widely accepted, however, and even today conflict persists. The elk management area was chosen because of its relatively low concentration of agriculture compared with other parts of the state, but PGC still receives complaints every year about elk damaging crops and landscaping. However, farmers are legally allowed to take elk for crop damage, so long as they report it and turn in the head and hide of the animal. According to Banfield, between three and six elk are taken this way annually, a number that he is comfortable with. “I’m actually in support of those farmers having the ability to act on their own behalf and defend their livelihood. The benefits definitely outweigh the costs.”

Nick WesdockNick Wesdock is The Wildlife Society’s Operations Assistant. You can follow him on Twitter at @nick_wesdock.

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