Game Commission Proposes Expanded Elk Season

Mature Bull: 2006

On January 26, 2010 The Pennsylvania Game Commission gave preliminary approval to seasons and bag limits for the coming license year. This includes significant changes in deer, bear, turkey, and elk seasons. Seasons and bag limits will be finalized during the Commission's April 19-20th meeting.

As part of these sweeping changes there is a proposal to add an extended elk season for those few who are unable to fill their tag during the regular season.

According to PGC News Release#05-10 Jan.26, 1010:

The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners today gave preliminary approval to a regulatory change to allow any unfilled antlered or antlerless elk license awarded for an annual elk season to be valid for taking either an antlered or antlerless elk anywhere within this Commonwealth outside of the elk management area during any designated extended elk season following the regular elk season.

“From time to time, elk wander outside the boundaries of the area in which the Game Commission is attempting to contain them in,” said Carl G. Roe, Game Commission executive director. “Because of elk-human conflicts, we do not want to have elk establish populations in areas outside a certain area."

“For this reason, we want to allow elk license holders who have not taken an elk during the regular season to be able to participate in an extended season to target elk that have gone outside the elk management area."

The Board also approved the 2010 elk season to be held on Nov. 1-6, and to an extended elk hunting period for those with unfilled elk licenses to be Nov. 8-13.

In related action, with the agency continuing to work to update and implement the elk management plan, the Board gave preliminary approval to regulatory changes to address a somewhat confusing aspect of elk management policy.

Under the proposal, terms such as elk range, elk management area, elk hunt zones will be clarified in the management plan and regulations.

Under the regulatory change, Elk management area” would be defined as that portion of Wildlife Management Unit 2G in McKean, Potter, Tioga, Elk, Cameron, Clinton, Lycoming, Clearfield and Centre counties, bounded on the north by Rt. 6, on the east by Rt. 287, on the south by Rt. 220 and I-80 and on the west by Rt. 219.

Also, “elk hunt zones” would be comprised of areas as established by the Director on an annual basis prior to the opening of elk season. The divisional line between two or more elk hunt zones shall be the center of the highway, natural watercourse, other natural boundary or marked boundary.

Analysis Of The Situation:
The implementation of the expanded elk season sends a strong message that the PGC does not want the elk herd to expand into more heavily populated areas of the state, especially those in close proximity to highways with large traffic volumes. It is hard to say just what this proposed season means in the overall scheme of things.

What will actually be more telling in the short run is to see how the hunt zones are realigned and what allocations are assigned. Certain PGC officials have recently made remarks about shifting the focus of elk management from hunting to tourism, yet one can go back to a 2003 news release and find where they were saying the same thing about shifting hunting pressure away from the mature bulls and that did not happen to a significant extent until the 2009 season when the combined hunt zones were eliminated.

Whatever the final decisions that are made for this year, they are never the FINAL decisions and wildlife management policies are in continual flux from year to year and will continue to be so. Whatever the outcome, it does not change the fact that there are agency personnel that are extremely concerned about the amount of hunting pressure that has been recently directed at the mature bulls.

Some in the hunting industry bask in a state of blissful euphoria as they skim the top off of the few exceptional bulls that the state produces each year, certain that this will continue indefinitely, but they would be well advised to feel a sense of unease even as they do so, for their sport is regulated by a totally unpredictable agency.

What if The PGC decides to drastically increase the license allocation and issues 100 bull tags for the 2011 season(this scenario is assuming that the elk herd remains at about 700-800 animals)? How would this impact the attempt to build a guiding industry around killing exceptionally large bull elk? Would those who support the hunt as it is currently implemented, think this was a good idea? How long would it be until they were talking about the good old days when we had large bulls to hunt?

A scenario such as this is not LIKELY to happen anytime soon, but it is not written in stone that it will not. Those who hang their hat on the belief that wildlife is always managed by scientific principles needs to get a grip on reality and take a closer look at how important management decisions are sometimes made.

Willard Hill


More Mature Bulls Now Than Ever Before?

"Crazy Legs 1997": A Monster Bull*

Today's photos are video still captures from Hi-8 video tapes, which cannot compare to output from a dedicated still camera or even a modern camcorder.

In a recent internet debate with SupportPAElk, Jack Manack Jr. of Elk County Outfitters made the following comment in reference to our contention that too many of the large bulls have been killed in the elk seasons.

"You guys question my comments about there being more mature bulls now then ever before and the fact that there are less to see around the no hunt zone. The answer to both of these questions is the same. This is how much good the elk hunt is doing for the health of the herd. What it took people 70 years to do to the elk, the hunt is reversing in just a few".

Jack Manack Jr. 2009

In light of this statement a brief look at the historical record is in order.

Elk vanished from the state sometime in the late 1870s. The Pennsylvania Game Commission was established in 1895 and a serious effort to re-establish decimated or extirpated wildlife populations began. According to Ralph Harrison, writing in "The History of Elk Country", elk from Yellowstone Park were released in The Commonwealth from 1913 to 1915, along with 22 animals from a preserve in Monroe County. Six more animals were released in 1924 and four in 1926 for a total of 177 animals released.

A season for bull elk was established in 1923 and 23 bulls were taken. The harvest climaxed in 1927 at 26 animals and declined to five in 1930. Only one animal was taken in 1931 and the hunt was discontinued.

The decline in numbers continued until it is estimated that there were between 24 and seventy animals in 1970.

At this time Ralph Harrison organized an effort to improve elk habitat and the herd began a steady increase.

This positive trend continued until "the first modern day Pennsylvania elk hunt in 70 years was held in 2001. The herd now numbers 700-800 animals. An important consideration to bear in mind is that the PGC is reasonably certain that 80% of these animals do actually exist. They are counted and monitored on a regular basis. The other 20% of the herd is estimated to exist. The key word here is ESTIMATED. Some who are extremely knowledgeable about the elk herd question the accuracy of this estimate and feel that the number is actually less, and most likely a great deal less. These are not tourists, or elk guides, but rather persons who live in the elk range and observe the animals on a daily basis. These same persons also do NOT believe that there are more mature bulls now then ever before, but rather contend that too much hunting pressure has been directed at them and that there are now less mature bulls on Winslow Hill and less in the back country than before the hunt.

Before the hunt it was fairly common to see bulls such as the following one on Winslow Hill. There is some room for error here, but this animal was most likely taken on the fourth day of the first elk hunt season. If this is the same bull, it was the largest rack taken and the 3rd heaviest animal during the 2001 hunt.(PGC News Release 102-01)

8x9 Near Gilbert Viewing Area:1997

8x9 :Another View

I admit to being somewhat confused! How is it a good thing that there are less bulls of this caliber on Winslow Hill now, than there were before the hunt?

In the past 70 years the elk herd rebounded from only a few animals to an estimated 700 animals before the 2001 hunt, (PGC News Release 102-01), yet Mr. Manack defends the hunt by saying, "what it took people 70 years to do to the elk, the hunt is reversing in just a few".

It seems things were going to hell in a hand basket before the hunt came along and saved the day, yet during this time elk numbers were increasing and the herd was expanding. What problems has the hunt reversed? We will explore this subject in more depth in the near future.


Who Really Pays For Elk Management-Is A Change Needed ?

Bull 36-2005

There is a belief among some that support the Pennsylvania Elk hunt as it is currently implemented, that their opponents are misinformed, uneducated persons, who have little understanding of the situation. If if they could only grasp the "scientific" facts of modern wildlife management they would become enthusiastic supporters of the program instead of shouting "half-truths" from the rooftops.

First, I must confess that I did agree with this point of view to a certain extent in my early years, with the exception that elk did not enter into the equation when I entered the outdoor arena in the mid-1960s as there was only a small remnant of a herd and little or no discussion of Pennsylvania elk in any of the outdoor magazines. How then did one who was educated, enlightened and totally with the program come to develop a diametrically opposite point of view after spending the majority of their life working in the front ranks of land management and law-enforcement with the Pennsylvania Game Commission? It would take an entire book to deal with this issue in a satisfactory manner, but I hope to address it to a certain extent in a series of posts in the near future.

With this thought in mind I wish to toss out a few thoughts on who pays for our wildlife conservation programs and on elk management in particular.

Carol Mulvihill has an interesting article on this very subject in the January 9th, 2010 edition of Endeavor News . Ms. Mulvihill raises several interesting points:

"Elk management in Pennsylvania is the responsibility of the Game Commission and the funds to do it come from hunting license sales, Pittman-Robertson funds (federal excise taxes on firearms and ammunition) and funds from timber and oil/gas resources from state game lands used for hunting."

"The truth is that elk management is subsidized entirely by hunters. Animal rights advocates don’t give a penny toward elk management. Neither do tourists."

"The situation is not fair – and it’s not sustainable. Wildlife management in this state must soon be paid for by all citizens. We have hunters to thank for the subsidy of the Game Commission’s budget to manage an elk herd in Pennsylvania that tourists from far and near come to photograph and enjoy. But they can’t keep paying the entire bill by themselves."

Ms. Mulvihill is accurate in her assessments to a great extent, but there are a few other aspects to the issue.

Perhaps most important is that until the last few years the PGC DID NOT WANT to receive funding from other sources. It was only after the legislature decided to play political hardball with the agency and refused to grant a license increase, that alternative funding received serious attention. The reason was quite simple and went much like this: "If they help pay, then we must give them a seat at the table and a voice in the decision making process," and this the agency DID NOT want to do.

Another aspect to this is that many tourists and photographers do hunt some species, do buy a hunting license each year, and do help foot the bill for the elk management program. Most of the persons I personally know who photograph Pennsylvania elk are licensed hunters so the issue is not as simple as it seems on the surface.

That being said, the situation must change, but to receive public funding there needs be substantial change. First the agency needs to become The Pennsylvania Wildlife Commission, but the change in name must be followed by substantial changes in how the agency operates.

The PGC is responsible for maintaining a written elk management plan, which sets seasons and bag limits , etc., but much of the public land in the elk range is State Forest Land, which was not purchased with, nor is it managed with hunting license dollars, yet most of this land is open to public hunting.

Food Plot On State Forestry Land-Elk County Pennsylvania

This land is managed by DCNR, an agency which does plant food plots, has law-enforcement officers, etc. The PGCs role on State Forest Land is limited to enforcing laws, gathering biological data, and setting seasons and bag limits. They do not do habitat improvement work there-unless it is a co-operative type project. DCNR is a general fund agency, which is largely funded by taxpayer dollars, timber sales, etc. It could well be that the benefit the hunting industry receives from the use of these lands far outweighs what the tourist industry and animal rights advocates receive by using State Game Lands.

A close look at the 2001 elk harvest map reveals quite a bit as to land ownership patterns in the elk range. State Game Lands are shaded in gray, State Forest Lands in light green,State Parks in dark green and private property in white.

2001 Elk Harvest Map:

Courtesy The Pennsylvania Game Commission Media Resource Center

Another aspect of the situation that is often overlooked is that State Game Lands are not always purchased with hunter's license dollars. In 2000, the PGC, DCNR, The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and RMEF partnered to purchase the Gilbert Farm, which is now The Gilbert Viewing Area. The property was then conveyed to the PGC to manage and maintain. This begs the question as to what portion of this acquisition was actually paid for with hunter's license dollars.

The bottom line: While the PGC does pay for "elk management" with hunters license dollars and does own and maintain several important tracts of land, the vast majority of public land in the elk range is State Forest Land, which is paid for and maintained by everyone's dollars!


Trusting Animals: Photographing Wildlife

Photographing wildlife is no easy task, the beauty of the creatures, their environment and photographing their interaction is what keeps drawing me back time and time again to photograph God’s untamed creatures in their free roaming habitat.

Snapping a picture of a wild creature sometimes is easy and other times not so easy but making a Photograph is an entirely different situation. A studio photographer typically is in control of his subject, the lighting and the background environment but in wildlife photography all of that control is out the window.

For lighting we are strictly at the mercy of the weather and the animal’s whims. Even if we do find our subject during the very best light of the day, if the animal or our observation post is not properly positioned to take advantage of the beautiful light, our efforts are in vain. Sure a picture can be snapped to show what we saw but a real photograph, one such as you might find on a magazine cover will be impossible if we cannot change position to take full advantage of the situation.

Backgrounds are another issue. With wildlife the animal chooses where it will be and when it will be there. Sometimes the encounter is perfect with a great natural background and other times; oh well just another snapshot to be deleted later or kept as a reference to show what was encountered, unless the photographer can move to a more advantageous shooting position.

The value of trusting wildlife for photographic purposes cannot be overstated. With wildlife that does not become overly alarmed by human presence the success of the photographer as well as of the casual viewer is greatly enhanced.

It is no secret among wildlife photographers that many if not most wildlife photographs found in publication are photographs of trusting animals. These animals normally live in areas protected from hunting pressure. Areas such as National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and other protected areas as well as pen raised animals are utilized extensively by wildlife photographers.

Whether the subject is a songbird conditioned to human presence by feeding or a mature whitetail in a National Park there is no shame in photographing trusting animals, this is what we need to be successful. The challenge is not in the hunt but rather in using all of the tools, our knowledge, and our creativity to produce a beautiful memorable photograph that celebrates the beauty of nature.

Wildlife images featured on my blog, Country Captures, for the most part are of wildlife that has a certain amount of trust or tolerance for humans. With some subjects tolerance can be built with only a few quiet non-threatening visits while others require a considerable effort be expended acclimating the animals to human presence, sometimes years!

One of the great values of the Pennsylvania elk herd is the almost total lack of fear of humans. The elk found around the traditional viewing areas are accustomed to human presence. Seventy years of protection and the influx of tens of thousands of visitors each year has conditioned these animals to such a degree that they simply go about their daily business regardless of human presence.

With the current tiny no kill zone the quality of available animals has been eroded over the years of the hunt and perhaps their trust will be the next to go. Some do not see the value in preserving this unique experience that thousands enjoy and consider the changes brought on by the hunt to be positive.

In my opinion reducing these majestic trusting free ranging animals to a trophy hanging on the wall, a set of number in a record book, and a hunting story does nothing positive for the image of hunting or of hunters and nothing positive for this unique Pennsylvania Treasure.

Republished from Country Captures