Elk habitat gets funding and gets a little facelift

Sentinel photo by JESSICA WELSHANS Pennsylvania elk will have more habitat thanks to an investment by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The Pennsylvania elk are majestic creatures that draw in visitors from all around, all times of the year, and the range of thus said creature is expanding.

Their herd has made hunters who place their luck in the elk tag draw yearn for their number to be called every year.

Found in northern counties of Central Pennsylvania, the large animals are branching out slowly, and with this movement comes more attention to their habitats within their range.

Recently, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation announced it was putting funding into Pennsylvania. Where? All over the state, even in counties that didn’t have these creatures.

The majority of the funds were being used in “elk country” as some call it, starting with an old mine reclamation project.

On State Game Lands 100, located in Snow Shoe Township of Centre County, the work has already begun. Acid mine drainage has presented a problem for much of the coal mining regions, and thus affecting the water quality.

Here, the RMEF said that the acid drainage from past practices goes into Contrary Run, which is a tributary to Beech Creek.

At the site, work will be done to reclaim the abandoned mine land and neutralize the acidic water in Contrary Run by adding a limestone filter to passively treat the water discharging into the stream.

Tom Toman, RMEF Director of Science and Planning explains, “The Centre County project is far more than an elk habitat enhancement project.  Much of elk country in Pa. is comprised of abandoned mining areas. This project will use earth moving equipment to eliminate 600 linear feet of abandoned high wall which impedes wildlife movement and often leaches acid fluids from previously mined areas. RMEF has helped fund a large number of areas like this which in essence is mine reclamation to provide habitat for elk and other wildlife.”

That funding he speaks of goes through the Growing Greener Watershed Protection program with a $1,003,139 grant sponsored by the RMEF.

“This project will provide an additional 10.5 acres of wildlife habitat (forage) on State Game Lands 100 to directly benefit elk and a wide variety of other wildlife,” Toman said.

The forage is a high-quality grassland. He added that the wildlife benefiting include white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and a variety of upland game, songbirds, small mammals, insects (particularly pollinators) that live in the area.

“This is particularly important to the expanding elk herd. The expansion is only possible due to significant habitat enhancement activities in recent years to reclaim these pre-regulatory surface-mined areas,” he said. “The Pennsylvania Game Commission is the only partner on this project. The direct public benefit of this project is a healthy landscape with habitat that will help ensure the future of wildlife in this area.”

The highwalls mentioned are steep, exposed cliffs that create unsafe conditions for people and wildlife.

Awarded the construction contract was Berner Construction Inc., a Women Business Enterprise located in Gap. The project is found adjacent to several other abandoned mine areas found here that were also reclaimed, which now total 180 acres of improved habitat.

In relation, the expanding heard and habitat-improvement projects, the game commission issued five elk hunting licenses for that hunt zone in 2015, where two bull elk were taken.

“The benefits of habitat enhancement projects are better wildlife habitat and the critters are the direct beneficiary of these projects. Research projects provide scientific data to help the wildlife professionals manage all wildlife in the state so that our wildlife heritage continues into the future for our children and grandchildren,” he said.

Habitat enhancement and research projects have a two year window to complete the projects, and Toman said the time starts with the date of our award letter.

Studies on the elk themselves go on in the state, too.

Supporting the Pennsylvania Game Commissions study efforts the RMEF will be helping keep up their big game management research work with funding.

GPS collars are fitted to elk to help provide beneficial information on the herd here. The project will take place in Clearfield, Centre, Clinton and Potter counties.

“Radio collars provide invaluable information on highly accurate locations to better determine what habitat the elk use during feeding, resting, movement patterns to and from seasonal ranges, and can often help identify critical habitats, i.e. calving areas etc. This will also contribute greatly to better population estimations through elk herd composition surveys,” Toman said.

Accurate within a meter, these collars are an upgrade from the once used VHF collars, Toman said, where location had to be triangulated and often resulted in an accuracy of about a half mile.

“These collars remain on the elk for several years and are programmed to collect location information every 13 hours. That information is available to the elk biologist via internet. The collars also have a mortality mode that changes signal anytime the collar has not moved for eight hours,” he said.

Adding it also notifies the biologists so that they can get into the field and determine cause of the mortality before predators and scavengers render that impossible.

What’s the benefit outside the agencies for this? Toman said it ensure the elk management has the best information it can, and can be successfully managed for public viewing and hunting.

“Elk are a strong part of the wildlife heritage of Pennsylvania but they were extirpated by the late 1870  Pennsylvania conservationists restored elk to the commonwealth between 1913 and 1926 and they have remained a valued wildlife species to this day,” he said.

The RMEF said it has had its presence in Pennsylvania for the past 25 years as a conservation partner in the elk management program by funding the preservation or enhancement of nearly 21,000 acres of valuable habitat in the northcentral region.

Projects that have funding coming in From RMEF outside the “elk range” or habitat fall under a category Toman said is called “hunting heritage and conservation education.

“Most of those projects focus on youth to help them understand wildlife conservation and the important element to maintain wildlife forever. Food, water, cover and space are the four elements of habitat,” he said. “Our country has gone from a situation where almost everyone was raised on a farm or ranch to one where many folks are not aware of wildlife or wildlife habitat and what conservation really entails. We hope to engage young folks in the conversation about conservation so that future generations can be good stewards of the planet Earth.”

Much of the program’s grants will help introduce youngsters to archery, rifle and shotgun shooting, firearms safety and hunter education.

“We certainly want them to carry on the tradition of hunting and fishing and to do it responsibly,” he said.

To find out more about what the RMEF is doing in your area go to www.rmef.org