Pennsylvania elk hunting, tourism co-existing

Posted on: October 28, 2015 | Bob Frye | Comments

Elk by Andy Russell

Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
A bull Elk sticks his tongue out while watching cows graze Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2105 on Winslow Hill, outside Benezette, in Elk County.


The sign along Route 555 in Elk County heading into Benezette makes the announcement in big white letters: “Entering Pennsylvania’s elk range.”
As if there could be any doubt.
Further down the road are Wapiti Woods guest cabins — wapiti is a Native American word for elk — and the Elk Country Store. There are Grants Pass Antiques & Wrought Iron and Cedar Haven Lodge, both of which have elk in their logos. And don’t forget the Sleeping Elk Lodge, L&L Wild Elk Gifts, The Big Elk Lick equestrian campground and the Old Bull Cafe. The list goes on.
Pennsylvania is home to 1,000 elk spread across 800 square miles through a half-dozen northern counties. But this is ground zero. And everyone, it seems, is trying to cash in.
“I’ve personally worked with at least a dozen startups and expansions that relate to elk tourism,” said Tataboline Enos, executive director of the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship. “I mean, a lot of these great family-run places didn’t even exist five years ago or existed in a smaller version of what they do today.”
“For the residents and businesses of the area, the elk are a huge deal,” said Michael Chapaloney, tourism director for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.


Elk--Winslow Hill--Benezette

Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
John Thomas, of Orbisonia, PA (left) and Ed McGarvey, of Shirleysburg, PA, look out over Winslow Hill Overlook, one of the best places to see wild Elk, on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2105 in Elk county outside Benezette. The elk are more active around dusk and dawn attracting tourists from around the country.

The numbers tell the tale.
The Elk Country Visitor Center drew 80,000 visitors when it opened in 2010. It will hit 400,000 this year, said Rawley Cogan, head of the nonprofit Keystone Elk Country Alliance that runs it.
“People can see deer in their backyard every day,” he said. “But to see elk, you’ve pretty much got to come here.”
Tourism revenue in Elk County has grown 26 percent to $69.3 million from $55 million in 2010, Enos said. One hundred new jobs have been created.
Doug Ruffo is among those benefitting. Formerly of Irwin, he and wife, Sylvia, opened Benezette Wines five years ago. This year, they’ve had visitors from 50 states and 16 countries.
Some return specifically for the wine, just as other area businesses lure people on their own merits, Ruffo said. But elk are what initially put everyone on the radar.
“That’s what first brings them up,” he said. “People from all over know about this place.”
The fall months are busiest. On autumn weekends, Benezette — home to fewer than 250 full-time residents — can see 15,000 people, said Jim McCluskey, a township supervisor.
“It can take two hours to get out of town,” he said. “As soon as it gets too dark to see, everyone wants to leave at once, and then it’s bumper to bumper.”
All that occurs simultaneously with elk hunting.
That has surprised some. When the Pennsylvania Game Commission reinstituted elk hunting in 2001 — after 70 years of closed seasons — more than a few worried it would mean the end of elk tourism.
That hasn’t happened.
On the eve of the 15th modern-day hunt — it runs Nov. 2-7 this year, with 126 licenses (95 for cows, 21 for bulls) awarded by lottery — tourism and hunting coexist.
“It’s not unusual to hunt a species — be it elk, deer or bear — and have populations grow. We said that from the beginning,” said Cogan, who was the Game Commission’s elk biologist in 2001. “We said we’d hunt them and still have tourism, and that’s how it all worked out.”

Elk--Winslow HIll--Benezette--herd

Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
A bull Elk herds cows outside Benezette, in Elk County, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2105. The elk usually come out of the deep forest to graze around dusk and dawn.

The key is the how and where of the season, said Jeremy Banfield, the current elk biologist.
Hunters and tourists enjoy seeing giant bull elk, animals that can approach 1,000 pounds and sport wrist-thick antlers. So the commission manages the herd to ensure 30 to 35 percent of it is “branch-antlered” bulls, he said.
That’s three times the ratio in some western states, he said.
The commission also divides the elk range into hunt zones. It determines how many zone-specific licenses to issue in each based on whether the goal is to grow, maintain or shrink a particular “subpopulation,” he said.
Hunting is allowed in zone 7, which surrounds the main elk viewing areas, but no tags have been issued there.
That addresses a common misconception.
Doty McDowell, a supervisor in the commission’s northcentral region office, said many visitors wonder about the fairness of hunting “tame” animals like those around Benezette, not realizing how wild the rest of Pennsylvania’s elk are.
“When you get off Winslow Hill, those elk, if they see or smell a person, they’re gone,” McDowell said.
Hunters have taken some massive bulls, animals with more than 440 inches of antler, ranking them among the biggest taken anywhere.
“There’s some pretty good hunting to be had in some units. I’m talking dawn-to-dark hunts for wild elk in the middle of nowhere,” said Jack Manack of Mt. Pleasant, owner of Elk County Outfitters guide service.
The plan moving forward is to offer more for everyone. Banfield said the elk are using only the western half of their range, but work to develop habitat to the east is ongoing in hopes elk will expand in that direction.
“I think, in time, we could double the herd. That would sort of be a long-term, career goal,” Banfield said.
The crowds are sure to follow.
Pennsylvania’s elk range rests within the largest block of green space between New York City and Chicago, Enos said. Fifty million people live within a six-hour drive.
On a recent Friday afternoon, despite chilly, drizzly conditions, senior citizens under bright blue-and-white-striped umbrellas and teenage girls in furry boots gathered along the road to watch elk grazing in a meadow near The Big Elk Lick.
McDowell expects to see only bigger crowds in the future.
“I think we will see the day when a million people a year show up here,” he said.

This story originally appeared at
Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

Elk--Winslow Hill--Benezette--stares camera

Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
A bull Elk stares down the camera outside Benezette, in Elk County, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2105. The Elk population has been rebounding since the late 1980’s to 950 animals attracting tourists from around the country.

Other signs hang in Pennsylvania’s elk range.
No trespassing. No parking. Private drive. Posted. Some are tacked to trees and fence posts. Others hang from ropes strung between barrels to block off driveways.
They speak to the challenges of rural tourism.
Visitors seeking elk — and as likely to find them grazing on the Benezette Post Office lawn as at an official viewing area — oftentimes don’t understand or ignore the differences between public and private property, said Benezette supervisor Jim McCluskey.
“People, if they’ve never seen an elk and then spot a big bull, they just stop, wherever they are. Then you’ve got people in yards, in driveways, on the roads. There are kids running around. It’s a little spooky,” McCluskey said.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission also has new signs — “elk viewing area: closed to entry” — at its recently redesigned Winslow Hill property. They’re reflective of another growing problem.
Too often, people treat the area’s elk as tame and get overly close, commission biologist Jeremy Banfield said. That’s dangerous, especially in fall when the “rut,” or breeding season, peaks and bulls are competing for and guarding harems, he said.
Two times this year, rutting bulls smashed the rear windows out of vehicles, said Doty McDowell, a supervisor in the commission’s northcentral region office.
That was a first. But it’s not uncommon for conservation officers to have to “haze” bulls acting aggressively around crowds by shooting them with nonlethal beanbags and rubber buckshot, Banfield said.
One even had to be euthanized last year.
“Whenever there’s a wildlife-human conflict, 90 percent of the time, it’s a human issue, and 100 percent of the time, it’s the animal that suffers,” Banfield said.
The Elk Country Visitor Center uses staff to keep visitors on designated trails and at official viewing sites, said Rawley Cogan, director of the nonprofit that runs it. That’s to give elk space and keep visitors from getting “shish-kebobbed,” as has happened elsewhere around the country, he said.
But outside the center’s grounds, human behavior is harder to control.
For example, the commission is trying to better direct where people can and can’t go on Winslow Hill. But its job is managing wildlife, not tourists, and it doesn’t have the manpower to constantly staff the viewing area, McDowell said.
“We’re not set up as an agency to deal with that full time,” McDowell said.

This story originally appeared at

Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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