Just north, touch of Yellowstone

ELK COUNTY, PA. — ELK COUNTY, Pa. - In open fields and on wooded hillsides they forage, more than 600 strong. Their antlers look like extensions of the tree limbs around them. When they snort, foggy plumes billow above their heads.

Descendants of the great herds in Yellowstone and South Dakota, the Pennsylvania elk have become a tourist attraction, capable of causing a back-road traffic jam just as quickly as a fender-bender on a freeway.


Towns in this area have taken advantage of the transplanted herd. Elk silhouettes adorn mailboxes, road signs and coffee mugs. The Benezette Hotel serves a Bugle Burger, named for the distinctive call of the bull elk.

Soon, locals hope they'll have a festival to honor their most famous residents since movie cowboy Tom Mix, an event that will coincide with the first elk hunt in 70 years. The Pennsylvania Game Commission voted Wednesday to allow one this fall.


Unlike Mix, who happily made the jump from obscurity to the limelight, Rocky Mountain Elk take their cue from film legend Greta Garbo. They want to be alone.

Finding them is a game played annually by 70,000 visitors, who travel bumpy byways no wider than some suburban driveways. Sometimes, they get lucky.

Dann Snyder, a Carroll County poultry farmer, has been studying the elk and their ways for nine years. He puts his knowledge to use improving the odds of camera-toting tourists in search of a close encounter.

Snyder, 39, owner of Tomahawk Guide Service, calls his elk sleuthing "my up and getaway" from his job managing County Fair Farms in Westminster. He started Tomahawk in 1995, "after the proverbial apple hit me on the head."

Each time he went to Elk County to scout the herd, Snyder ended up directing carloads of tourists to the prime spots. Looking in his rearview mirror at the caravan behind him, he realized people would pay for what he knew.

In 53 guided trips to Elk County, Snyder says, he has never failed to find elk. His highest single-day total was 134 cows and bulls. Just last weekend, despite the snow and temperatures in the teens, he was able to find 87, several of them majestic bulls with immense racks of antlers.

Fall foliage and the mating season attract the bulk of the tourists, who come to see the cows gather in herds and the bulls bugle and spar.

Snyder knows better. "If you want to hear them, come in fall. If you want to see them, come now." In winter, the brown coats of the elk stand out against the white backdrop. And, he says, it's better to visit before bulls lose their antlers (March), the cows settle down to give birth (June) and the humans converge (September).


Most of Snyder's clients choose to see elk from a vehicle, but he can take them to his favorite back-country viewing spots on foot or by horseback.

"That way, you avoid the Yellowstone experience," he said, referring to the national park's crowds.

Snyder has enlisted the help of local logger and horseman Don "Woody" Wood, who looks more like a cowboy than Mix did.

Wood, 60, is a trail boss who has forgotten more about Winslow Hill, his home and the heart of elk country, than most folks know.

"He has the home-field advantage," Snyder acknowledges.

Wood also has the horses, literally. Red, Ace, Echo, Dusty, Charlie and Cheyenne aren't fazed by tenderfeet or ruffled by animals that stand as high as they do and can run at 40 mph in short bursts.


In addition to giving Snyder a hand, Wood has his own daily elk trips and organizes two extensive rides, one Labor Day weekend and one in mid-September.

"This is the way to see the elk," Wood says, gesturing at his horses. "I can't think of anybody who has gotten back from the ride and been disappointed. It's wonderful being in the elk's back yard. It's a little touch of the West back East."

And that's exactly how Pennsylvania got its elk, from the West.

Roots in early 1900s

The original Pennsylvania herd, known as Eastern Elk, were hunted to extinction shortly after the end of the Civil War.

By the early 1900s, the state game commission decided to reintroduce the animals in a number of northern counties and paid $30 a head to Yellowstone National Park.


The first shipment of 50 Rocky Mountain Elk arrived by train in 1913. The effort expanded to include elk from South Dakota and continued for 14 years until the herd numbered 177.

In 1923, the state opened a bull-hunting season, but closed it in 1931 amid fears the elk would again become extinct. By 1974, the herd had shrunk to fewer than 40 animals.

Residents of this hardscrabble coal county realized they had a natural crowd-pleaser and money-maker in their own back yard and began clamoring for help.

Before long, the game commission promised to improve the habitat, Pennsylvania State University conducted the first study of the elk and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation donated money to help buy a 1,600-acre preserve.

As the population recovered, animals were trapped and moved to nearby counties, expanding the elk range from 350 square miles to 800.

But success had a downside. The herd began damaging crops, and farmers fought back, killing 26 elk in 1982. State wildlife officials and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation stepped in, creating grazing areas on public lands and paying farmers to fence the most damaged areas.


Last winter, an aerial survey of the range pegged the population at 566. Preliminary estimates from a flyover last week set the herd at 650.

Buoyed by the rebounding numbers, the game commission has set a one-week elk season in November, with hunters chosen by lottery, that could result in the killing of 30 animals.

"If we do not hunt our elk now, we expect to face more conflicts with landowners, more vehicle collisions and potential wildlife habitat destruction, and increased competition between elk and other wildlife for food and habitat," biologist Rawley Cogan told the commission last week.

Difference of opinion

The decision has divided Elk County residents, even though the game commission has created a no-hunt zone around the official elk viewing area in the tiny town of Benezette.

Next to the cash register at the Benezett Store on Route 555 sits a stack of posters decrying the elk hunt.


Store owner Ben Roberts, a former hunter, says he doesn't understand the rush to thin a herd that has just recently recovered.

Despite talk of an "Elk Festival" in the fall to coincide with the hunt, Roberts sees no economic benefit.

"I get one week from hunters and 365 days from the tourists," he says. "I get $5,000 to $7,000 a day from the tourists in the fall. Who needs elk hunters?"

Roberts says the game commission is being greedy, choosing elk license fees over the welfare of the local community. He believes news reports with images of dead elk will spoil the county's reputation as a tourist destination.

"It's like going in my back yard and shooting my dog. It ain't going to help at all," he says.

Pro-elk residents of Benezette say that Pennsylvania shouldn't do anything to jeopardize a resource found in only four other states east of the Mississippi. Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin also have wild elk herds.


Their concerns are echoed by a biologist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who has spent a decade studying the elk.

"Biologically, those 600 animals represent a certain genetic pool. If you take 30 animals out, you're eliminating one-twentieth of your pool, and I think that's significant," Gary Ferrence told the Gazette-Mail of Charleston, W.Va. "I am not an anti-hunter by any stretch, but I don't think we should be cutting back on our herd at this time."

Other residents voiced their displeasure during eight hearings last summer on the elk hunt plan. A common complaint was that it was unfair to shoot an animal that has become used to people.

But the elk season has fans among the state's 900,000 deer hunters and farmers who fear that without a hunt the animals will again overrun their fields.

Wood, who hunts elk out West and is a force in the Pennsylvania chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, says he can understand the economic fears, but hopes his neighbors will come around.

"They're against it because they're afraid they're going to lose money," he says. "It doesn't slow tourists down going to Wyoming, and they have an elk hunt."


To contact Tomahawk Guide Service, call 410-848-1896.

To contact Don Wood, call 814-787-7483.