It’s dusk on a beautiful fall day in northcentral Pennsylvania and scores of visitors are on the search. The goal: Seeing — and hearing — elk.
The male or bull can weigh more than 800 pounds and have antlers that are four and a half feet long. But, along with seeing the animals, visitors want to hear them.
It doesn’t take long before cars pulling over on the side of the road tip other tourists off. And sure enough, a few dozen elk are grazing in a grass field beside the road.
Jackie Biega, of Ellwood City, said it was the first time she and her family got to hear them.
“We were pretty excited. We’ve been waiting to come up, for the weather to get a little bit chillier, because we had been hearing that when it was real warm they weren’t out,” Beiga said.
Ten-year-old Blake Biega described it this way: “It’s beautiful.”
The eerie call and the elk that make it draw an average 350,000 to 400,000 visitors a year to the area. That’s according to Rawley Cogan, president and CEO of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance.
Cogan said they’re on track to set a record this year. The alliance is a nonprofit that manages the Elk Country Visitor Center, which is owned by the state. It opened in 2010 as a public-private partnership.
While the state had lost manufacturing jobs, it did have abundant natural resources.
“We saw an opportunity, No. 1, to get out a clear, consistent conservation education message, but we also saw an opportunity to drive economic development,” Cogan said.
Since then, an industry has built up around it that includes bed and breakfasts, artists, wineries and restaurants. Elk County sees $70 to $80 million dollars a year from tourism, much of that from elk watching.
“From my personal viewpoint, there’s nothing I enjoy more than sharing Elk Country with folks, and getting them the opportunity to experience elk country, and that’s what we do here at the center,” Cogan said.
Cogan said there were fewer than 100 elk in 1982. Today, the number has grown to more than 1,000 in a half dozen counties in Pennsylvania.
September and October are when most visitors go. That’s because it’s breeding season, also known as rutting or bugling season.
“When the elk bugle, they’re basically saying: ‘Hey, ladies, I’m over here.’ And they’re also saying to the other bulls, ‘Hey, these are my ladies and you stay over there.’”
Cogan says it is the cow’s choice about which bull she is going to breed with. The bulls, meanwhile, try to round up as many cows as they can. Because there is so much competition in the area, the bulls generally have to make do with harems of fewer than 20.
Carla Wehler, operations manager at the visitor center, said she enjoys sharing Elk Country with visitors and seeing how they react when they spot elk for the first time.
“There’s nothing like hearing a bull elk bugle," Wehler said. "We call it mountain music.”
Wehler said they would like to see more visitors enjoy elk watching year-round. That includes early June, when the babies arrive. Wehler said it’s her favorite time of year.
“The bull elk are majestic and crazy big and exciting, but I love to see the babies. I love to be here in June and July, August when those nursery bands are gathered, and you get to see the calf elk playing and scampering around the fields," Wehler said. "That’s what I enjoy.”
Nancy Fleming, of Tunkhannock, was in the area on a fall day with her husband. They were watching about 17 elk from a roadside viewing spot.
“I just think they’re such a beautiful animal, and seeing them in their natural habitat is really nice.”
Along with viewing locations and information, the visitor center offers wagon ride tours, a 4-D movie and a gift shop featuring regionally made arts and crafts. While the bugling is in the fall, the experts say elk watching is great all year long.