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Bud's View: Research expands state elk restoration

Pennsylvania residents, despite publicity surrounding last year's 100-year elk restoration anniversary, may be surprised that a growing wild elk herd roams freely in north central Pennsylvania.

In the fall, tourists visit the Elk Country Visitor Center, near Benezette, Elk County, where they see and photograph elk and drive the 127-mile Elk Scenic Drive, renowned for its spectacular fall foliage, through Clinton, Clearfield, Cameron and Elk counties.

Hunters, who through the luck of the draw, receive one of a limited amount of elk hunting licenses each year, travel to Elk County for early November's week-long elk hunting season.

According to Pennsylvania Game Commission elk biologist, Jeremy Banfield, a substantial herd of elk has crossed the Susquehanna River into Centre County, extending the elk territory eastward.

On an early morning search for newborn elk calves, we explored Centre County game lands and state forest areas.

If a cow moves off but stays close to where she was first observed, or if she returns to the original location, it is a good indication she has a calf in the area.

Our goal was to find, check the general health, tag and attach a radio collar to calves. The radio collar signal will indicate the movements of the calf, cow and the herd.

Mother elk forage for food while their calves lie motionless, its spotted camouflage offering protection from predators. The cows return periodically to check on their calves.

We located four cows during a four-hour morning search. The method involved me staying in the spot where a cow was first observed while Banfield and two volunteers checked the area surrounding my position.

The searchers walked parallel to one another in a radius moving away from me. Once they reached a specific distance, they moved to their left and returned to me using the same method of search. They continued searching the area around me until a full circle was covered.

Once a calf was located, a volunteer or Banfield held down the calf until it was tagged and collared. A net was thrown over the calf if it tried to run. Holding down a struggling 30-pound calf is not an easy task.

Calves are being captured to observe their health. Data gathered during the rut will be used for a survival-rate survey.

Major herds of the eastern elk (Cervus Canadensisonce) ranged over most of the eastern United States and southern Canada with many calling the forests of the Poconos and Pennsylvania's central mountain ranges their home.

Unregulated hunting and the westward movement of civilization depleted the elk. The last known herd of 12 native Pennsylvania elk spent the winter of 1852 along the Clarion River. The last individual eastern elk (wapiti) disappeared from the Keystone State's vast forests in 1867.

In 1913, Rocky Mountain elk were trapped in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, transported by train to Pennsylvania, transferred to horse and wagons and released in the northcentral part of the state. The relocation had mixed results until improved habitat reclamation and management practices were instituted in the 1980s.

Although once thought to be two separate species, recent DNA evidence and expert opinions have determined eastern elk are identical to Rocky Mountain elk.

Elk breed in September. The dominant bulls produce a bugle sound to attract and defend harems of 15 to 20 cows. The gestation period is eight and one-half months. Calves are born the end of May through mid-June. Cows almost always give birth to one calf.

Calves weigh about 30 pounds at birth and are able to stand within 20 minutes. Calves start to nurse in about one hour and begin to follow their mothers after about two days. They feed on vegetation when less than one-month-old. Calves spend the summer with their mothers nursing and browsing. The elk life-span is 20 years.

Elk are in Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk and Potter counties, an expanded range because of habitat improvement, trap and transfer efforts, selective harvests and natural dispersal.

The Elk Country Visitor Center is a must-see. It's the most impressive interactive educational nature center I've visited. Don't miss the 4-D theater program.

Information: elkcountryvisitorcenter.com

That's the way I see it!

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