PITTSBURGH — It’s a bull elk whodunit, as Pennsylvania game officials try to figure out who shot the huge animal earlier this month in the middle of the night, on someone’s lawn.
Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau said the roughly 700 pound elk was mortally wounded on Oct. 15 at about 3 a.m. in Benezette. That’s 130 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, and elk herds have flourished in the region, attracting tourists but also generating some complaints because of damage to yards, gardens, and crops. Game Commission officers later put the animal down because of its injuries.
Betty McCluskey, the owner of the nearby Winslow Hill Bed and Breakfast, said that the elk herd has grown dramatically since she came to the area 43 years ago.
Elk were originally native to Pennsylvania, but vanished by the late 1800s. In 1913, officials tried to restart the herd by importing elk from Yellowstone National Park, but total numbers were believed to stay below 100 until the 1970s. Now, officials estimate that there about 900 elk.
“I’ve enjoyed the herd expanding,” McCluskey said, adding “that’s the only reason” many tourists come to the area.
“By and large I think most people enjoy the elk,” she said of local attitudes, but an official history from the game commission notes that in 1970 area farmers “began to actively pursue relief from the invading elk. Some sought compensation for losses or implementation of artificial feeding programs,” since one elk consumes what several deer can eat in a day.
After the complaints, the state began to study and manage the herd more actively, and now there’s an official Elk Scenic drive, an 8,400 foot visitor center in Elk County, and a local alliance of people who offer and promote elk-viewing activities. In 2001, the population had grown to the extent that a limited yearly hunt began again, and Lau said that there were about 20,000 applications for 86 elk permits this year.
Officials are still investigating, but Lau said, “I would suspect whoever pulled the trigger knew what they were shooting,” since it’s also illegal to hunt deer at night. He added that there are a few complaints about the elk every year, mostly when they move into more populated areas and tear up or eat lawns or gardens.
“There’s always a trade-off between the tourists coming in and the residents,” McCluskey added. “No matter what you’re doing, there’s the for and against people.”
Illegally killing an elk out of season carries up to $15,000 in fines and up to 36 months in jail. Lau said local people and businesses have offered a $3,800 reward for information about the shooting.