Keystone Elk Country Alliance To Decide On Wednesday About Labor Day Weekend Opening

Elk Country Visitor Center: June 16, 2010-photo by W.Hill

There has been a lot of speculation as to when the Elk Country Visitors Center near Benezette, Pa. will open and today Paul Staniszewski, a Juried PA Wilds Artisan, sent the latest news concerning the center and the opening date.

Mr. Staniszewski reports, "I went up to Benezette this morning (Monday) and saw that a black iron gate like the one going to the Homestead has now been installed at the entrance to the visitors center.... Also, a cinder block base has been constructed to hold the Elk Country Visitors Center sign.... The people at the visitors center tell me that they will decide on Wednesday if they will open for Labor Day week".

The opening date will be posted on The Keystone Elk Country Alliance Website. Be sure to click on the Visitor Center tab.

Paul also reports seeing several bulls and hearing a lot of bugling on Winslow Hill as the rut gets underway.

Pennsylvania Bull Elk: photo courtesy of Paul Stanszewski-all rights reserved
Paul has also heard  that the buildings at the Gilbert Viewing Area are scheduled to be razed very soon as the reclamation project in that area comes to a close.

 Gilbert Buildings Likely Scheduled For Demolition: Photo by W.Hill-Winter 2006
I have referred to this as "The Gilbert Viewing Area" for years, but this is not the official name at present.  It was called The Gilbert Farm when I first went to Elk County in 1995 as it was owned by Kenny Gilbert who spent summers there and winters in Florida.  In 2000 the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation partnered with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to purchase the land.  Later stewardship of the property was transferred to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. At the time of purchase , it was simply referred to as "The Gilbert" and it seemed likely that it would be called "the Gilbert Viewing Area", yet when a sign was erected last year, it was named "The Porcupine Hollow-Winslow Hill Viewing Area".

Porcupine Run-Winslow Hill Elk Viewing Area Sign: photo by W.Hill

We have no other confirmation that the demolition is scheduled, but it is consistent with Game Commission policy as in most cases he PGC does not maintain buildings on lands which it acquires unless they are suited for a specific need.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill


Elk Country Visitor Center To Open September 9th?

Elk Country Visitor Center Under Construction June 16, 2010-photo by W.Hill
Rumors abounded in Pennsylvania elk country during the late 1990's and early 2000's about the future construction of a visitors center for elk tourism on Winslow Hill. At that time the favored spot was in the area known as “The Saddle". This is the area on Winslow Hill, near the Gilbert Farm, which has been the site of a reclamation project for most of this decade. Most assumed that a visitors center would be built and operated by The Pennsylvania Game Commission, but subsequent events proved this to not be the case.

Perhaps the initial happening in a string of events that was to change the situation entirely began in 2002 when Pennsylvania Game Commission Elk Biologist Rawland, “Rawley” Cogan resigned his position as elk biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and went to work for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation as Northeast Lands Program Manager. The next important step was when the RMEF purchased the 245 ace Betta Tree Farm on the lower reaches of Winslow Hill, which became known as Elk Mountain Homestead. It is unclear as to whether the property was purchased with the goal of building a visitor center, but within a short time of the acquisition the possibility was openly discussed and the RMEF Newsletter “Wapiti” featured an article by Julie Cowan in the winter 2007 edition, “Elk foundation, Pennsylvania DCNR Announce Partnership for Visitor Center” , which verified that this was to be the official course of action.

The official groundbreaking for the construction of the center was on September 25, 2008, but actual construction did not begin until late May of 2009 (Source-May 20, 2009 issue DCNR Newsletter “Resource”)

According to the 2007 article by Ms. Cowan, the center was to be open by the fall of 2009, but this was not to be and the project met a major set-back instead when the RMEF abruptly withdrew from the project in September 2009, and transferred ownership of the property to DCNR. It was soon back on track; however, with the founding of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, which stepped in to fill the void left by the departure of the RMEF and named Cogan as project Manager for the Visitor Center.

"Rawley Cogan" Project Manager For Visitor Center Addresses "Wild About Elk Workshop" June 16, 2010-photo by W.Hill
 The actual opening date has been difficult to pin down, as The Keystone Elk Country Alliance Website has not given a firm opening date until very recently. It now appears that the center should open no later than September 9, 2009 according to Paul Staniszewski, a Juried PA Wilds Artist, who specializes in macro-photography and the production of Floral Note Cards. Mr Staniszewski has been engaged to provide products for the Visitor Center gift shop, and recently received official notification that the “for sure” opening date is September 9th, while Visitor Center Officials are still hoping for sooner if possible. This is further confirmed by the recent updating of the The Keystone Elk Country Alliance Website's Visitor Center Page which now says, “anticipated to open September 9, 2010.

"Wild About Elk" Workshop Participants Observe Elk Near Visitor Center Parking Area-June 16, 2010- photo by W.Hill
I hope to take a closer look at the impact the Visitor Center may have on the Benezette area in the next installment, which should be posted within the next few days.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill


Genetics and the Hunt

Broad based hunting seasons with the general population hunting is assumed to normally distribute the harvesting of young through mature male animals.  However, without controls and restrictions the maturity and broad based gene pool is still often effected as evidenced by the Pa Whitetail deer hunting program.  For a number of years the antlered season was run without any restrictions other than the antlered deer had to have one antler at least three inches long.  With advances in rifle and scope technology and the easier access to all hunting grounds, the Pa whitetail deer population had few males reaching 4 to 5 years old and most antlered deer harvested were small in antler structure.  That style season did not selectively harvest trophy animals as most of the hunters afield only wanted to say "I got my buck".  A few years ago an antler restriction of at least three points per side was added and a significant change has occurred in the antlered deer population in PA with many more very mature antlered deer resulting.

The Pa Elk Hunt is administered with antlerless and antlered tags.  There is no program currently to cull particular gene pools from the elk population or control the age and genetic make up of the animals that are harvested.  The data collection and interviewing I have done of hunters that desire to hunt bull elk in PA has brought to focus a concern for the long term health of the Pa Elk Herd.  Most of the hunters are only interested in harvesting a "Trophy" bull.  they are paying a significant guide fee and it is like winning the lottery to draw a permit, let a lone an antlered permit.  With a small herd (less than 800) this can create a situation where the breeding bulls with what is considered "trophy racks" can be culled from the herd to the point that the bulls with non-trophy or deformed racks become the primary breeding stock for the Pa Elk Herd.  It is recognized among game biologists that selective culling must be done in small herds to maintain a herd with broad based genetics.  I began researching this topic after seeing five bulls in the same area near Benezett last winter that all had similar deformities of the right antler.  It was obvious from observation that all of these bulls were genetically deformed and had not had some antler damage done during velvet to cause the deformity as some tried to convince me.

Here are images of three of the bulls:
(these images do not follow rules of photography of animals--they are cropped to illustrate antler structure)
This one may be Dad or Grandpa

The other two bulls that were with the above three stayed deeper in the brush and did not provide me with an opportunity to photograph them clearly.  

All of these bulls are within the hunt zone.  If the hunt is continued on the same basis as it is now-bulls like these could become the primary breeding stock of the herd which could result in the majority of the bulls in the herd having antler structure such as this is some other antler form.  Since the Pa Bull Elk are so easily accessible (guides would lead you to believe this is not true-but look at the 100% kill stats in Pa compared to 15% in western states) the Pa Game Commission could implement a program similar to what is done on ranches in Wyoming, Montana and Texas for deer.  That program would have tags that are for specific animals that would be culled from the herd for long term health of the herd.  An outfall of that would be that antlered tags would not be as cherished and the number of applicants might go down. The bottom line is that the Elk Hunt in Pa has not been very well thought out in terms of management of the herd for its long term health.

Jim Borden