11.21.2012

Ralph Harrison Receives Rothrock Award

Ralph Harrison: Photo by John Eastlake-all rights reserved
 Each year, the Pennsylvania Forestry Association (PFA) recognizes an individual, organization, or group's significant contributions to the public recognition of the importance of Pennsylvania's forest resources in the same tradition and spirit of Dr. Joseph T. Rothrock, the first president of PFA.

This year's recipient was retired Bureau of Forestry Maintenance Supervisor, Ralph Harrison, Elk County native and resident of Dent’s Run.  Mr. Harrison received a plaque with the following inscription:

"Ralph Harrison has demonstrated a life-long interest in and concern for the elk of Pennsylvania.   He successfully motivated forestry professionals to develop specific elk habitat actions for the Elk State Forest management plan and provided keen observations and knowledge that were essential to the accomplishment of the plan.  A healthy elk herd now populates over six Pennsylvania counties.  Know for his educational talks, tours, and publications, Ralph is the individual most responsive for saving the Pennsylvania elk herd as a valuable component of today's Penn's Woods."

For those unfamiliar with Ralph Harrison I will reprint an edited version of a post from this blog , "Ralph Harrison Above and Beyond The Call Of Duty"  February 13, 2008, which will give the reader an understanding of the conditions under which Ralph Harrison became involved with the elk."

"Mr. Harrison was born in Dent’s run in 1928 and has lived there most of his life except for a stint in the military. Ralph went to work for what was then know as the Department of Forest and Waters in 1951 and worked for them for the next forty years, although the agency changed names over this period. It would take a book to cover his life and in fact Ralph has written three. The first was “The Pennsylvania Elk Herd: published by The Pennsylvania Forestry Association in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service and DER Bureau of Forestry. The Second was a smaller update of the first called, “The Pennsylvania Elk Herd of Today” Published by The Pennsylvania Forestry Association in cooperation with the DCNR Bureau of Forestry. His most recent is, "The History of Pennsylvania Elk Country", also published by The Pennsylvania Forestry Association..

Mr. Harrison never had an official job in elk management. There was no big title, just a simple love and respect for the animals, which led him to go above and beyond the call of duty and dedicate his life to them. He has seen elk population grow from less than twenty to over 800 animals. Although he would never claim responsibility, he was an important factor in this increase.

First, a greatly condensed history of the Pennsylvania elk herd to illustrate the backdrop against which Ralph Harrison's life work took place. The last Pennsylvania Elk was killed sometime in the late 1860s or early 1870s as a result of unregulated market hunting. In 1913 The Pennsylvania Game Commission released fifty animals in the north central part of the state. These animals were obtained from Yellowstone National Park. There were additional releases and in time the herd grew to the point that The PGC established a hunting season in 1923. Anyone with a general hunting license could kill an elk (bulls of 4 or more points were legal). In 1931 only one bull was killed.  The season was closed in 1931 and remained so until 2001.

During this time the PGC lost interest in the herd and at times few even knew they existed, as what few remained stayed well away from human habitation in most cases. The population began to increase slowly in the 1950s. Ralph recalls how he realized the elk herd was rebounding in the mid-1970s after a late August evening encounter with cows and calves in a meadow in which he heard bulls bugling in the woodlands. This so inspired him that he approached his boss the next day and outlined a proposal to help the elk herd survive and expand. Things progressed from there. A management plan was developed which included more public land acquisition and development of suitable elk habitat.

 In a nutshell the PGC did re-introduce the elk in 1913, but when the population declined too much to support a hunt, they lost interest in the species. It was The Bureau of Forestry, inspired by Ralph Harrison that picked up the torch and brought the elk herd to the position it was in a few years ago. The PGC only entered the fray after Forestry had done the hard legwork to bring the herd back from the brink. It should be noted that this was the agency as a whole, not some of the dedicated Game Commission employees who were assigned to the area. These included District Game Protectors Norm Erickson who served from late 1940s-1965 or 66, and Harold Harsbarger who ably filled the slot from 1966-97. PGC Wildlife Biologist Bill Drake was also numbered among these dedicated individuals. All were very interested in the welfare of the elk, even at times that The PGC as a whole was not.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

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