2012-02-02 / Local & State

As Pennsylvania Elk Population Increases, So Do Complaints

By Kevin Begos

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Please don't feed the elk.

That message doesn't come from a Rocky Mountain state, but from Pennsylvania, where elk have come roaring back from near extinction. The wildlife success story has brought a surge of tourists but also some grumbles from locals who say the huge beasts gobble crops, tear up lawns, and are sometimes too much of a good thing.

“They're just a nuisance. We get a lot of people that like to view them, which is good for the businesses. On the other hand, traffic is unbearable,” said Lisa Anderson, who lives near one of the prime viewing areas in Elk County, about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

And forget about keeping a nice lawn with a herd of elk nearby.

“When you live in the area and you have a herd of 20 to 30 elk, and your yard isn't frozen, just think what your yard looks like,” Anderson said, referring to how the animals, which can reach 1,000 pounds, can tear up grass just by their presence.

Pennsylvania's wild elk population went extinct in the late 1800s, and small numbers of western elk were reintroduced in the early 1900s. The herd has grown from roughly 65 in 1971 to about 800 today, according to the state Game Commission.

That's the largest herd of wild elk east of the Mississippi, according to the county.

Chris Rosenberg, head of the Deer and Elk section at the Game Commission, credits a management plan that created habitat for the elk, and ongoing efforts to monitor and better understand the herd's biology.

Now, an animal that hunters have prized for centuries has grown into a major tourist attraction.

The Elk County Visitor Center has attracted more than 200,000 people since it opened in late 2010, said Ron Alcorn, vice president of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, a wildlife conservation group.

That's a lot of visitors for “out there in the middle of nowhere,” Alcorn said, adding that people have come from all 50 states and 33 foreign countries. They visit the 8,400-square-foot visitor center, which has large viewing areas, wildlife trails and a theater and is set on 245 acres of land. The state contributed half of the $12 million cost, with the remainder from private donations.

“It's been a good driver for the economy,” he said, noting that people have opened bed and breakfasts to cater to the tourists.

But not everyone has benefited. The animals can cause significant damage, one farmer said.

“They cost us a lot of money over the years,” said Clearfield County farmer John Sankey, 82, whose extended family works a halfdozen farms. “We have elk damage on every one.”

“I like to eat the meat, but we can't eat `em all,” he said of the herd, which will munch corn as soon as it gets knee-high.

The game commission has also worked with some farmers to fence fields, and to remove elk that were severely damaging crops.

It's all part of the commission's plan to manage the elk. Other goals include trying to stop private property damage by 2016.

Enforcing a ban on feeding the elk is part of the plan, as is hunting, aimed at keeping the elk population in check.

In 2009, the state issued 60 elk hunting licenses from a lottery that received just over 19,000 applications, and 44 animals were harvested. Hunters have long sought the animals, which were known as wapiti to Native Americans.

Another farmer said the herd isn't a big problem – yet.

“If it keeps getting bigger, it might make a mess,” said Frank Smith, who grows corn, oats and hay in Clearfield County.

“ I don't mind seeing them. They're like deer and bear and everything else,” he said.

But Smith is hesitant about some of the other impacts.

“Some of the tourists may be worse than the elk,” he said jokingly.

Some stop their cars in the middle of roadways to gawk at the huge creatures, Anderson and other residents report.

“They're a hazard to the motorists. They're not afraid of you,” Anderson said of the elk.

There are signs both the Game Commission and the Elk Country Alliance take the need for education seriously.

A state veterinarian is scheduled to speak Feb. 11 at the visitor's center on the dangers of feeding elk.

Looking back, Alcorn said he and other Alliance members are proud of all the elk program has accomplished. What began as an 835-square-mile elk management area is now 3,750 square miles, with signs the herd is expanding beyond that.

“It started about 15 years ago. I didn't even know there were elk in Pennsylvania at that point,” he said. “It's just good to be part of all of this.”

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