Pennsylvania’s wild elk rut attracts nature enthusiasts
It’s Fall and old-timers know that the winds in the Elk County mountains waft with a new sound these days. They have heard that sound for years and know it’s the arrival of the wild elk rut. The distinctive mating calls of the wild bull elk of the Benezette area will bring the place alive. And visitors know that now is the time to see the event-of-the-year here.
In Elk County, Pennsylvania, the bulk of the state’s wild elk herd roam the old reclaimed strip mines and rugged mountains. Wildly scattered members of the elk herd start to converge on the tiny town of Benezette and its surrounding lands after a summer of segregation. Love is in the air… or more specifically, most of the annual mating rituals of the 1000-member herd will take place in the area. And all of it will be to the delight of the tourists who make the annual pilgrimage to see and hear what happens next.
There is magic in the air
It really is quite magical. The geographical setting is magnificent to begin with. There are miles and miles of lush forest lands.
Tiny boulder-strewn secondary roads weave their way in and out of State Game Lands, the Quehanna Wild Area and the Elk and Moshannon State Forests.
There are more trees than people here and wild elk have the right-of-way.
It’s a delight to the senses: fresh mountain air; foggy mornings in the woods and along the mighty river; trails to hike; long vistas from which to marvel; good food at good home-town restaurants.
The mountain ritual of the resident elk is the same every year in these parts.
The 500-pound or so cows of the elk herd live together all summer long and protect their late spring- born spotted elk calves.
They often stay in the general area of the lush fields and food plots surrounding Benezette.
The 700 to 1000-pound bachelor bulls congregate in separate herds and often spend the summer in the mountains.
Their antlers start growing in early to mid-summer. They can grow ½ inch a day and by late summer, the antlers are taking shape with a fuzzy-skin covering called “velvet”.
By late summer, the newly formed antlers are hardened and the velvet peels away, often with the help of the bull thrashing them against woodland bushes.
The new solid-bone rugged antlers will tower 4-5 foot above the bull’s head and can weigh up to 40 pounds.
Not long after the antlers are fully hardened, the bull elk ready to battle for possession of herds called harems, made up of a mature bull, sometimes smaller, “satellite bulls” and several cows and calves. According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation information site, in order to entice cows to be a part of a bull’s harem, the bull wallows in mud to coat themselves with urine “perfume.”
He also bugles a piercingly-loud type of “bellow that is a sort of squealing whistle ending with a grunt.”
A mature bull threatens other bulls by sneering, grinding their teeth and hissing, and sometimes a mature bull will launch itself into violent battles by locking antlers and butting heads with another mature bull.
This confrontation ends in both bulls walking away, one bull declaring victory, or a fight to the death.
It’s a sight to see for lucky visitors.
Once a bull elk succeeds in securing a harem of cows, it spends most of its time trying to keep its cows from wandering away.
The bull stretches his neck out, tips up his nose, tilts his antlers back and rushes to herd the wanderer back into the herd.
Between breeding cows and this endless circling of the herd, it’s exhausting work for the bull.
A trip worth taking
All of this creates quite a spectacle and is well worth watching for nature enthusiasts.
Benezette is a 100-mile, two-hour trip from the Williamsport area and is a beautiful drive, especially in the fall.
Be sure to take a map with you though or download offline maps to your mobile device, since cell phone signals are rare in these parts of the state.
Astute visitors might also want to secure overnight lodging since elk are most active just after dawn and before nightfall.
Not only will you see more elk, the chance of seeing one of the huge animals standing in the middle of the highway in the dark on the trip home is minimized.
Hotels in the St. Mary’s area make for a good base for visitors since it is only a half an hour trip over the mountain to visit the areas the elk frequent.
Rentals in Benezette are hard to secure during the rut so pre-planning is necessary.
A campground near Benezette is also available but again it books quickly during the elk rut.
In most cases, a visitor has a good chance of seeing or hearing elk though at their rental and often has his or her own private rut performance.
A stop at the visitor’s
center is a must
The magic of hearing elk bugling late into the night is an experience well worth planning for.
One of the best places to see elk and to take in a beautiful sunset is at the Keystone Elk Country Visitor’s Center on Winslow Hill.
This state-of-the-art facility, managed by the non-profit wildlife conservation organization that focuses on the PA elk herd is a must see.
It has fascinating interactive educational exhibits, live remote viewing of the herd, and an all new multi- sensory 4-D movie experience that chronicles the story of the elk herd.
Visitors get to hear, see, smell, and perhaps even feel the movie experience.
But as superb as the Visitors Center is, the 245 acres of prime forage food plots that surround the facility create an extraordinary opportunity to see large numbers of elk.
Handicap-accessible paths meander through the woods in perfectly groomed areas and lead to “blinds” so that visitors can view the elk in a semi-hidden manner. And trained Visitor Center staff work hard at providing a great experience for everyone.
At times, especially at dusk there can be hundreds of elk in the immediate area of the Visitor’s Center.
Another unique opportunity at the Visitor’s Center is the horse drawn wagon ride that takes visitors into the further fields there.
Even more elk can be viewed on those 45-minute rides and the wagons often travel close to the herds.
It is an especially wonderful opportunity for children to see elk up close in a safe situation. Getting tickets for the rides takes perseverance though so plan for a very early morning wait in line at the Visitor’s Center for the quickly sold-out seats.
But elk can be readily seen at dawn and dusk most any place in the Benezette area. Driving the Winslow Hill Road is a favorite pastime for visitors because elk are so easily viewed right along the highway.
Plan for a slow ride and severe congestion though as less-than-polite drivers stop in the road to watch.
Words of wisdom for everyone
A word of caution: although the Benezette area elk are very much acclimated to humans, they are still wild.
Never attempt to approach, touch, or feed the elk.
Visitors should observe these huge animals at a distance and with wariness.
A bull elk that becomes separated from its harem by humans is a dangerous elk.
He has only one thing on his mind and that’s securing his cows.
Don’t be the person who creates a dangerous situation for everyone and the elk because of wanting a good photo.
Cell phones are not appropriate for elk photography.
Photographers, especially, enjoy seeing wild elk during the rut and chronicling the herd’s daily activities.
They come here from all over the country.
Award-winning outdoor writer and photographer Dave Wolf travels from his home in central PA several times a year.
He says, “What is there not to love about the Benezette area? We have been fortunate enough to photograph elk, deer, hawks, owls, snakes and a wide variety of smaller animals. It’s my belief that taking a photo is a memory that can last a lifetime. These are wild animals and capturing the right moment is something worth striving for. At the same time, we work hard not to disturb animals to the best of our abilities.”
Photographers like Dave use a telephoto lens and a camera with good low- light capabilities to capture their mesmerizing images.
A trip to Benezette is an annual ritual for many nature enthusiasts. Some pre-planning will make your trip the best it can be. Elk are fascinating creatures. The rut will be “on” until mid-October. You will enjoy your trip. As Wolf says, “To hear a bull bugle never leaves you.”
The time to visit is now!