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Pennsylvania's elk herd currently numbers over 700 animals spread out across a 3,750 square mile range; however, many people base what they know about the elk on the small percentage of the herd that inhabits the area immediately around Benezette.
Given how used to people the elk around Benezette appear, it is difficult for some people to understand how the concept of an elk hunt can be challenging.
Tony Ross, Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Management Supervisor for the North Central Region, credits part of the misconception on the fact that the elk herd used to be concentrated around more populated areas, such as Benezette.
"[The elk] were never hunted before, so back then they were a little more used to people. They weren't domesticated. I don't use that word because our dogs are domesticated. They aren't dogs, but they were used to people and they weren't afraid of them because we never had any reason to scare them," Ross said.
Ross explained that over the years, the elk population has begun to expand its range into a bigger area away from areas heavily populated by people.
"We have a lot of people hunting several miles back in [the elk range away from Benezette] and they're getting them way, way back in. So the population is moving way far away from populated areas," Ross said.
He also noted that, while elk and deer may be similar in appearance, their behaviors toward people, while cautious, are completely different.
"An elk by itself is a big animal. It's not going to act just like a deer because as soon as a deer sees you, it can move because it's so quick and so small. An elk, they've got to stand there and they will still turn, but they don't have that ability to run away as fast as a deer," Ross said.
In addition to there being specific zones designated for elk hunting, the area immediately around Benezette and Winslow Hill is designated as a protected area where elk hunting is forbidden.
"[The elk that are more used to people are] in a protected area and that's the reason why we do that. They stay there and we don't want people shooting them. They have a tendency to stay in that area. They're not going beyond that area into the additional hunt zones," Ross said.
Still, Ross remarked that it is these elk in the protected zone in Benezette that people are more familiar with and influence the opinion of what all elk are like in Pennsylvania.
"They're laying in people's backyards and it's like, 'Well, wait a minute.' But if you drive beyond [Benezette], how many elk do you see? [People] are going to tell you, 'Well, none.' That's because they're not as used to people out there," Ross said.
Ross also noted that out of the 50 elk licenses available for this year's hunting season, only 25 elk had been harvested as of midday Wednesday.
"That's only half. It's still a high percentage, but it's only half. So again, the conception is they're easy to kill, but no, we've only killed 25 out of 50 so far," Ross said.
Many hunters who are drawn for an elk license also hire a guide who is familiar with the area and goes into the hunting zone weeks before the start of the hunting season to get a general idea of where the elk are. Hunters who do not hire a guide still typically arrive in the area a few days before the start of hunting season to scout the area within their hunting zone.
"It's not easy to walk right out and all of a sudden sit somewhere and just shoot an animal," Ross said. "It's not that easy. There's still a lot that do their homework."
According to Ross, one of the main motivations behind the annual elk hunt is population control.
"Right now, we have different studies that have been going on to try and determine actually how many elk we can have biologically based upon the habitat. So again, we're trying to keep our numbers controlled and obviously hunting is one way of doing it," Ross said.
For more on this story, see the Nov. 4 edition of The Daily Press.