2015-07-11 / Outdoors

Pa. elk herd: how far we’ve come!

Those who study Pennsylvania’s elk herd from a scientific perspective continue to add to their knowledge of this fascinating species. Researchers say that the more they learn, the more they realize how much they still don’t know.

Interestingly, even though the elk population is at a modern-day high (more than 900), there are fewer of the mature branch-antlered bulls that both hunters and tourists have a common desire to see. A bull is considered mature at age 6.5, reaching its full growth potential in terms of antler size and body weight.

One factor in the reduction is the killing of several “trophy” mature bulls, as well as some remarkable large-antlered elk ages four and five. Others have been killed on the highway and some have been taken by poachers.

Still, hunting guides and Game Commission field personnel report that there are more bulls than ever in Pennsylvania’s elk herd. Sightings by tourists may not verify that because the animals are more widely dispersed than ever.

This calf is among those fitted with global positioning system radio collars for ongoing research. Elk mortality is highest from birth to age two, with predators and accidents as the leading causes. This calf is among those fitted with global positioning system radio collars for ongoing research. Elk mortality is highest from birth to age two, with predators and accidents as the leading causes. Managing a free-roaming elk population in an undefined range is no easy job. Elk are not always readily visible to the tourists because of food plots planted on the reclaimed strip mines, as well as an abundant crop of acorns in many remote forested areas.

Allowing a regular limited harvest, but not compromising the quality and number of mature bull elk, is a management challenge for the Game Commission.

Biologists are more confi- dent than ever of the number and distribution of animals and the locations of sub-populations identifiable by the radio-collared animals. They are counting the number of elk they actually see and trying not to overlap.

The health of the herd is excellent and elk/human conflicts are not as frequent as they were 10 years ago.

Biologists also study elk mortality, age, gender, movement, and the number of mature bulls in each area to calculate the number of licenses they will recommend for each hunting zone.

Elk population management is further complicated by the fact that decisions are not made by biologists, but by the vote of game commissioners. Sometimes in past years, they have overruled the scientists.

Calf studies have been especially informative. Newborns have been marked with collars, ear tags, or both. Blood tests, weight measurements, hoof examination, umbilical observation, and gender are recorded on each captured newborn.

These study animals are monitored for mortality, movement and range.

When a collared animal stops moving for a certain period of time, the radio collar emits a signal with a different pitch and frequency. Cause of death is investigated when Game Commission field personnel locate the animal.

Mortality is greatest from birth to age two. One of the reasons is the presence of predators. Accidents are also a major cause of mortality. Emancipated yearlings are no longer under the guidance and supervision of their mothers. Their curiosity and lack of experience with dangers can lead them into trouble.

Biologists now know more about where yearlings go when they are kicked out of the nest, so to speak, and the mother elk goes off by herself in the spring to have another calf.

Research has revealed how far they travel, choice of habitat and other interesting findings.

Game Commission field staff report coming upon a couple of “nursery groups” recently, indicating that the calves are more mobile now. As the mother-calf combos team up with others and form groups, the visibility of new calves to tourists should be increasing.

What can a visitor to the Pennsylvania elk range expect to see in July? Calves nursing, running and playing in nursery groups, or even wading or swimming across streams with their mothers.

They’re most likely to be viewed just after sunrise and at sunset, when they stand to feed and play.

Management of a “wild” animal population over such a wide range of both public and private land will never be perfect. But as we observe the next generation frolicking in the fields and the smiles on the faces of those who travel through elk country, we should feel a sense of appreciation to the many people who have made it all possible.

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