Pa. study looks to elk food for information


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By COLIN DEPPEN

— It is daybreak in Elk County and in a hazy, open field on the municipality's southern end comes a sudden commotion.

A team of researchers and camera crew encircle a downed elk in the tall grass off Dent's Run in Benezette.

The animal is quickly girded with technology — a collar containing a camera and tracking device — before being released.

The action is all part of a pilot project launched by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Keystone Elk Country Alliance (KECA), a non-profit wildlife conservation group based in Benezette that aims to identify keys to the species' continued success in Pennsylvania and fewer unwanted encounters with humans.

If successful, the device now hanging around the adult cow's neck will shed light on what the herbivores eat and where in previously unimaginable ways.

KECA head Rawley Cogan said it the first time the technology has been used in the study of elk behavior. He expects it will likely provide “a level of detail never documented before."

“At the micro scale — what goes into their mouth, nobody gets to see,"he added. “We know what elk eat — they like clover, alfalfa and timothy, but we're sure there are some things we don't know about. It will be groundbreaking to see what the data shows and what can be learned from it."

The tracking device portion of the collar will stay in place for more than a year and the video camera for 2 1/2 months, recording at 15 minute intervals.

With the data culled, researchers hope to design more alluring elk habitats on state game lands that might be used to draw numbers of elk away from residential areas like southern Elk County. Residents there have long complained of traffic hazards and property damage associated with the free-ranging animals.

“If you know what elk prefer to eat you can create that type of habitat in areas to attract them away from conflict in places like Jay Township (in southern Elk County)."

Cogan said a similar approach was used roughly 30 years ago to attract members of the herd away from grazing on agricultural lands in St. Marys. In that case, he said, “The (Game Commission) planted high quality forest plots on state forests."The result, he said, was “the elk didn't have reason to go into crop lands in St. Marys."

In addition, Cogan said better habitat also means a healthier population with better survivability rates and birth rates.

With KECA agreeing to fund the experiment and technology purchases, the Game Commission committed manpower and resources, namely the expertise of recently named elk biologist Jeremy Banfield to study the resulting video and GPS data. Banfield could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Both organizations have a vested interest in the longevity of Pennsylvania's herd.

KECA is a conservation group committed to the preservation of elk and elk habitat in the area. It also owns and operates the Elk Country Visitors Center, an elk viewing attraction at the center of a local tourism industry.

The Game Commission currently oversees 3,500-square-miles of elk management habitat in Pennsylvania that encompasses parts of Elk, Cameron, Clearfield, Clinton and Potter counties. The herd numbers more than 800 and is the largest east of the Mississippi River.

It began west of the Mississippi River with the Game Commission pulling the animals from overabundant populations in Yellowstone National Park in 1913. The animals were relocated to western Pennsylvania after the region's native population was hunted to extinction.

But while Pennsylvania's elk herd numbers are the highest they've been in 100 years, parts of the elk management area are under-utilized, leading the state to call for shifting of elk population from Elk and Cameron counties to public lands in neighboring Clinton and Potter counties.

This, experts say, will lead to fewer unwanted encounters between elk and humans and a healthier population overall.

Politicians like state Rep. Matt Gabler, R-DuBois, support separation of elk and human habitats saying, “Habitat management is important to help avoid property damages caused by elk, and the facilities KECA manages are essential to providing tourists with places to view the elk away from private properties."

“While the tourism has been very good for our area, KECA's ongoing work to reduce the burden on local residents will go a long way toward improving the Elk Range experience for everyone involved,"Gabler added.

For now, the future for hundreds of elk may lie with the menu choices of one.

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