20170924-ts-hunting gateway outdoors pic

Pictured from left to right, Elk State Forest Technician Dick Sassaman, PGC Wildlife Biologist Bill Drake and Elk County WCO Harold Harshbarger are shown developing their strategy to locate and count elk during the Elk Survey of 1985.

Photo by Charlie Burchfield

This year is the 150th anniversary of Jim Jacobs’ killing of the last native elk.

PA Game News editor Travis Lau details the account in the September issue the PA Game news. Historical accounts can be difficult to untangle while seeking the truth. After considerable research, coupled with determination and attention to detail, Lau was able separate the truth from tall tales He developed a picture of what most likely took place with the facts he uncovered.

Lau’s article titled, The Last Native Elk, and the extensive research that went into developing the article determined that the setting referred to as Flag Swamp is where the hunt began or possible ended. Lau’s research found that Jim Jacobs is credited with killing the last native elk.

However, when searching for the location of Flag Swamp, the location was also cloaked in its own kind of mystery.

One account describes the area as set within the headwaters of the Bennett’s Branch. Another description of the swamp called it the Beaver Meadows, located within Clearfield County, north of DuBois. The account also names the headwaters of the Bennett’s Branch. If those descriptions are correct, Flag Swamp may very well be located at Sabula Lake north of DuBois along RT 255 or another location close by.

The article is a fascinating read from start to finish. Some may say it was a shame to lose such a precious resource. On the other hand, the deed became the catalyst for a new beginning.

Referring to the last native elk, Lau noted the words of Ralph Harrison from his book, The History of Pennsylvania Elk County, “But the important fact was that they were gone and, equally important is that, after an absence of more than 40 years, they returned due to the effort of a few enlightened people.”

Harrison’s statement is a fact. Re-establishing PA’s elk herd has been a long journey requiring decades of hard work and dedication.

The PA Game Commission’s book titled, “100 Years of Wildlife Conservation – 1895-1995” provides an interesting dialog of elk management.

In 1912, there was a movement spawned by the federal government to help reduce elk herds in Yellowstone National Park and the Jackson Hole refuge. Elk from those areas served as a source for PA’s elk reintroduction program.

The following year 50 elk at a cost of $30 a head were shipped by rail to Pennsylvania. A law protecting those animals until November 15th of 1921 was set in place.

Even with complaints from farmers regarding crop damage, additional elk were on the way. In 1915, 95 elk came in by rail and were placed on the PA landscape.

While hunters approved of the elk stocking efforts, the agricultural community felt otherwise, and crop damage due to elk became a problem. At the same time, deer numbers were increasing adding to the crop damage dilemma.

In 1923, two years later than planned, a two week elk season was held. Bulls only would be hunted, provided they had four points on one antler. That year 23 bulls were taken.

By 1928, the state’s elk population had been trimmed down to about 200 animals. It was at that point the commission came to the conclusion the elk were not worth the trouble. And by 1930, the bull elk harvest dropped to only five. The following year only one bull elk was killed, which effectively ended hunting elk in Pennsylvania. At least for a while.

Over the next three decades or so a modest band of between 50 and 100 elk roamed the state’s landscape. The numbers of elk were held in check by poachers, farmers, and an occasional mistake kill by hunters.

However in the 1960’s elk were scattered across a number of counties. For unknown reasons they began to return to their historic range in Elk and Cameron counties. As a result, elk once again frequented agricultural areas in search of food resulting in conflicts. For many, elk had little value. As a result it was quickly realized something positive had to be done if the resource was to survive.

In the 1960’s, the Bureau of Forestry began harvesting large tracks of aspen in the Dents Run and West Branch of Hicks Run in Cameron and Elk Counties where the elk thrived. The elk population began to increase and so did their conflicts with man.

Early in the 1970’s attitudes toward elk was beginning to change. In October of that year the North Central PA Economic Development District was held. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the idea of formulating an elk management plan for Elk and Cameron counties. As a result, in 1971 Professor John George of the Wildlife faculty, School of Forest Resources, at Penn State began collecting biological data on the animals.

In 1972, the PGC developed a large food plot on State Game Lands 14. The desired effect would be to attract problem elk away from the agricultural areas near St. Marys.

In 1972, an elk census was conducted in February and 65 elk were accounted. In the fall of that same year elk numbers were estimated at 77 animals. However in the fall of ’72 a new problem with the elk was discovered.

In July of ‘72 an elk was identified as having brain worm, a factor contributing to limiting the elk herd.

The first annual elk census began in 1976. By 1979, the survey revealed the number of elk had reached the 100 mark. In that same year Clifford Jones, Secretary of the Department of Environmental Resources, visited the elk range. Jones was impressed with work that was occurring on the elk range.

Learning about the brain worm problem through his efforts, a privately funded study by the University of PA, School of Veterinary Medicine was initiated. A milestone of that program took place in 1980 when a brain worm identified live elk was captured and transported to the University of Pennsylvania’s large animal facility.

With so much being learned about the elk, they were being looked upon as a valuable resource.

In 1981, a number of elk were fitted with a marking collar for the purpose of identification.

The following year the Cooperative Elk Study Project, a cooperative project between the PGC and the Bureau of Forestry began, and the first radio collars were fitted on a number of cow elk.

To take the spirit of cooperation further, in 1982 an elk committee was formed. The group included the PGC, Bureau of Forestry, farmers, and sportsmen. The goal of the group was to discuss elk conflicts and how to resolve them.

Now the number of elk success stories continued to compound one upon another.

The first modern day elk hunt was initiated in November of 2001.

This success story was due in great part from dedicated sportsmen and women of Pennsylvania and conservation groups that supported the elk herd prior to hunting.

The Elk Habitat Challenge Initiative supported by a broad spectrum of groups has and continues to provide millions of dollars to support elk and where they live.

The Elk Visitors Center will again host thousands of visitors that will include hunters and wildlife watchers alike. They are drawn to witness the seasonal sights and sounds of elk that takes place in the fall.

Today the number of elk roaming the Pennsylvania landscape has reached approximately 1,000 animals.

Few understand the dedication of those who have brought us here. The hard battles fought to save a resource that was almost lost. Today’s elk success story is enjoyed because there were and still are those who care.

The prime time to see elk and listen to bulls bugle is currently underway and will continue until mid-October.

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Charlie Burchfield is an active member and past president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Outdoor Writers Assoc. of America and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers. Gateway Outdoors e-mail is GWOutdoors@comcast.net

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