Is it time to introduce diversity into Pennsylvania’s elk herd?
That’s a question some within the state’s Game Commission are asking. The history of the herd and its recent health are the reasons.
Native to Pennsylvania, elk disappeared by the 1870s, victims of unregulated hunting. They remained missing from the state’s wildlife scene until 1913.
That year, elk were reintroduced from two sources. Fifty came via train from Yellowstone in Wyoming; another 22 were delivered from a preserve in Montour County.
All of the state’s wild elk today are descendants of those two populations.
“So it’s a pretty limited gene pool,” said commissioner Jim Daley of Butler County.
There’s a fear that’s starting to show. Speaking at a meeting of commissioners this past week, board president Brian Hoover of Delaware County noted elk reproductive rates have declined recently.
Perhaps, he suggested, adding new genetics would solve that.
“Would that not help the herd itself to expand? And would it not make a healthier herd?” he asked.
Commission wildlife veterinarian Justin Brown said answers to those questions are something “I’m not sure we know.”
What is clear, he said, is there’s potential for things to go the other way.
“The risk with moving and translocating animals at this point it probably about as high as you could get,” Brown said.
That’s mainly because of diseases like CWD, or chronic wasting disease, or tuberculosis.
Testing of more than 100 elk found this winter no evidence of CWD in Pennsylvania’s elk herd. There aren’t many such herds left where anyone could “feel too comfortable” about getting healthy animals, though, Brown said.
Hoover asked about the chances of using artificial insemination from a wild bull that tested “clean.”
There would be disease concerns there, too, Brown said, given the “imperfect diagnostics” scientists work with. The other question would be practicality.
“I think if you’re talking about artificial insemination from wild elk, there is a whole other set of questions of feasibility and whether you could even pull that off,” Brown said.
Before doing anything, he suggested the commission first identify its goals in regards to elk. Does it want genetic diversity, more elk in more places, or something else?
Even then, Brown said, any experimentation should be limited rather than introduced into the elk herd at large.
Commissioners seem interested in at least exploring options.
“I think it’s just an important thing we take a look at,” Hoover said. “The elk herd is so important to that center section of the state that should disease or something affect the herd, we could run into some really serious issues in a hurry.
“So that’s just something we think we need to take a look at.”
Brown just urged caution. There are pros and cons to all wildlife management, he said, especially when it comes to reintroducing species.
“Obviously we’ve got lots of examples throughout our history of management that was well intentioned but backfired. So I think, particularly with cervids in this atmosphere, there are some significant issues to consider,” he said.
“And we’d have to think about those before we went ahead.”