The elk have made a comeback from near extinction.
BENEZETTE, Pa. (AP) -- On a crisp, gray winter morning, two dozen elk graze on still-green grass.
They wear winter coats of tan and brown, and stand in two separate groups on a hillside near the tree line. A few hundred yards away, tourists watch and snap pictures from a designated viewing area, one of 20 elk-watching sites being created by Pennsylvania tourism officials.
Curt Leibold, 23, of Orwigsburg, brought along his girlfriend, Lori Muller, of Long Island, N.Y., to spot elk on a recent day.
"They're awesome, really awesome," Leibold said as he and Muller viewed a herd through his spotting scope at Winslow Hill, a popular viewing area on a reclaimed strip mine planted with grasses on which elk forage. Leibold and Muller had seen about 80 elk that day, including a bull with massive, backswept antlers, standing just along a roadside.
Muller holds out her digital camera with the picture for proof. "I really enjoy seeing it all," she said.
Each fall, tens of thousands of tourists pour into this rural Elk County township, where hunting camps seem to outnumber permanent homes, to see the elk in mating season.
But the animals can be seen in all seasons, with winter offering a chance to avoid the crowds and, if the weather cooperates, the opportunity to see and photograph them in their winter coats against the white snow.
During peak tourism time, "Sometimes you'll see bulls in town .... There's an opportunity to see elk everywhere," said Carol Mulvihill, of Bradford, who has become fascinated with the animals.
Mulvihill's Oldsmobile Bravada SUV bears the license plate "ELK LADY." Her leather cowboy hat is decorated with a small elk pin carved from a deer antler, and she wears gold earrings shaped like elk. She wrote and self-published a book, "Elk Watching in Pennsylvania," which sold out of more than 1,000 copies, and even bought a second home in Elk County.
"I'm real interested in what's going on with the elk here," she said.
Majestic elk cows can weigh 500 or more pounds and stand at least 4 feet high at the shoulder. Bulls can grow to 800 or more pounds and stand 5 feet at the shoulder. By contrast, a whitetail deer weighs 120 to 150 pounds and stands 3 feet tall at the shoulder.
Elk once roamed throughout Pennsylvania, but by 1867, logging, human settlement and hunting had eliminated them.
From 1913 to 1926, the Pennsylvania Game Commission introduced 177 Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park.
Population decline again became a concern, and in the 1930s, the commission curtailed elk hunting. That allowed the population to grow and the herd now contains 600 to 800 elk in a 835 square-mile area in Elk, Cameron, Clearfield, Clinton and Potter counties.
The Game Commission has allowed limited hunting of elk, by lottery, since 2001; hunters have killed 190.
In addition to the 20 state-sponsored viewing areas, the state also has created a 127-mile "elk drive," along State Routes 153, 555, 120 and 144 in Clearfield, Elk, Cameron and Clinton counties in an area designated as "Pennsylvania Wilds."
Here in Benezette, population 250, there are more elk than people most of the time -- except when the tourists show up.
While the tourists drive around to find the elk, "sometimes the locals drive around to see the people," said Lynda Tuttle, a cashier at Benezett Country Store, one of the few commercial establishments in Benezette, the heart of elk-watching country.
The store doesn't include a final "e" in its name. "We're radical," said Tuttle. The store has a restaurant and sells elk souvenirs like shirts, hats, mugs and artwork.
"Sometimes the elk are a problem. Sometimes the people are a problem," Tuttle said.
One elk problem: "You can't have too many flowers around because they'll eat anything they want. You can't have tulips around," Tuttle said.
One tourist problem: Not enough public bathrooms. "Ours are just beat every year," she said.
During the fall, the state puts portable toilets at the Winslow Hill viewing area, a four-mile drive from Benezett Country Store. The state plans to install a visitor center with bathrooms at Winslow Hill, according to tourism department spokeswoman Carrie Fischer.
Still, Tuttle enjoys the elk.
"It really is something to see that big of an animal that close in this part of the country," she said. "I really enjoy them, even though I see them every day."
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