Elk NetworkGreat Elk Outreach in Benezette

Conservation , Volunteer News | November 17, 2020

It’s the dark before sunrise and you’re waiting for that haunting, screaming sound of an elk bugling in the heart of Pennsylvania’s elk range. This is a typical experience for the thousands of tourists that journey to Elk County, Pennsylvania, each year to view elk during the rut.

“People come from New England, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia—all over just to come to see the elk,” says RMEF regional director Carl Mowry.

Each year for the last four years, RMEF volunteers have capitalized on this crush of people to do some great outreach for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “The main reason I started doing this event was to just get the word of RMEF out there, because a lot of people don’t know we even exist or that we do anything in Pennsylvania,” says Mowry.  RMEF received a permit from partner Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) to set up a 20-foot by 30-foot tent at the Winslow Hill viewing area amid 70-degree temperatures. Four to five volunteers a day interfaced with visitors and sold memberships and raffle tickets from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The volunteers engaged visitors for ten days straight, from September 25 to October 4.

The first two years, the Great Elk Tour trailer was there but scheduling conflicts kept it from appearing the last two years. That didn’t stymie the volunteers. They set up their own display of Pennsylvania elk sheds from a spike to a nine-point for people to see.

In 2020, Mowry and volunteers from the St. Mary’s Chapter, Clarion Chapter, Sharon Chapter, Western PA Chapter and the Altoona Chapter, gathered in the heart of PA’s elk range around PGC state Game Lands 311. Peg and Gene “Puffy” Lander drove 90 miles from their home to take part in the event. “I just love the elk and I know what rocky mountain elk foundation does for them. If I can do something to help out I gladly do it,” says Puffy. They both agree it’s fun to hear people tell about their experiences with elk viewing. “They talk about how big they are, what they see the elk doing, it’s a passion,” says Peg.

Many of the volunteers are from close to the area, so they have inside knowledge to share with visitors about where the elk are, and where they can go to see more. The volunteers sold 160 memberships, 20 more than the year before. Elk County is among the areas with the highest elk population density in the state. During this time of year, it’s not unusual to see several hundred elk in one area, including sparring bulls. Mowry says the giant parking lot around the Winslow Hill elk viewing area is almost full from dark to dark during the peak of the rut, with a 2.5-mile traffic backup just to get back to downtown Benezette at dark.

The especially impactful part of the outreach is that the volunteers running the booth can point to projects and land acquisitions that RMEF helped with right from their tent. These include the Woodring Farm project finalized in 2014, where RMEF worked with PGC to protect and add 81 acres to state game lands 311. Woodring Farm II in 2018, protected another 37 acres of 311. Pennsylvania has roughly 1,300 elk, and about a third of them use game lands 311 at some point in the year. “I love to talk about what we’ve done and tell them that as long as you continue to support us, we’ll continue to support the area,” says five-year RMEF volunteer Ernie Bertolasio. He spent the full ten days interacting with people and selling memberships and passing out paper elk antlers that he hoped would help advertise RMEF.

“We still get questions like ‘why are you set up here for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation?’ and we tell them well we’ve done millions of dollars’ worth of work here in Pennsylvania,” says Mowry.