Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pennsylvania Elk Management:: Ralph Harrison Above And Beyond The Call Of Duty!

Gilbert Viewing Area-Sept. 2004 Canon 10D: 100-400mm lens

So far in our discussion of the making of the documentary, Pennsylvania Elk: Reclaiming the Alleghenies., we have primarily dealt with Billie Cromwell and Hal Korber, who shot the footage, but there were other important figures as well.

Scott Weidensaul wrote the script, and Rawland Cogan narrated it. There were also interviews with various DCNR and PGC officials.I have no idea what Mr. Weidensaul personal views were on the Elk hunt that was soon to follow. It is certain that Mr. Cogan was supportive of a hunt, if in fact he was not leading the charge.

Some of those involved in the effort were not supporters of an Elk hunt.

Billie Cromwell and Ronald Saffer turned out to be bitter opponents of the hunt. While I was not involved in the making of this video in any capacity; I did get to meet many of the people involved.

When I first went to the elk range in 1995 I was an avid deer, turkey, and squirrel hunter, but surprisingly I did not view the elk as objects of a possible hunt. Billie Cromwell and Ron Saffer, both were also dedicated deer hunters, although Billie did quit about the same time that I did, which was in 1997-98.

Billie and I both held the following position:

A. The Pennsylvania Elk Herd was a small herd. It had a large number of extremely impressive mature bulls that had not been hunted in nearly 70 years.

B. It is the nature of trophy hunting to take the largest and best animals. If a hunt was held it should be primarily for population control and should be held only as needed to keep herd numbers in line with the available food and habitat.

C. The herd was of great value to the citizens of Pennsylvania as a unique viewing experience.

In time I came to realize that three people had been involved with the elk for a long time. Two of them represented the old guard, which had a much more low key, approach to the elk. These persons were Ralph Harrison and Wildlife Conservation Officer Harold Harshbarger. The third was Rawland Cogan, the elk biologist at the time. He represented the new hard driving elk management policy, which seemed intent on establishing an elk hunt in the near future, although for a time he devoted much effort to expand the elk range by a trap and transfer program.
Ralph Harrison:
The video included a substantial interview with retired Bureau of Forestry Maintenance Supervisor, Ralph Harrison, Elk County native and resident of Dent’s Run. Mr. Harrison was born in Dent’s run in 1928 and has lived there most of his life except for a stint in the military. Ralph went to work for what was then know as the Department of Forest and Waters in 1951 and worked for them for the next forty years, although the agency changed names over this period. It would take a book to cover his life and in fact Ralph has written two. The first was “The Pennsylvania Elk Herd: published by The Pennsylvania Forestry Association in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service and DER Bureau of Forestry. The Second was a smaller update of the first called, “The Pennsylvania Elk Herd of Today” Published by The Pennsylvania Forestry “Association in cooperation with the DCNR Bureau of Forestry. I do not know if these books are still in print, but as recent as last autumn some copies were still available for purchase at Benezette Store..

Mr. Harrison never had an official job in elk management. There was no big title, just a simple love and respect for the animals, which led him to go above and beyond the call of duty and dedicate his life to them. He has seen elk population grow from less than twenty to the 500-700 of today. Although he would never claim responsibility, he was an important factor in this increase. Like most true experts, he professes to know little about elk.

This is an extremely condensed history of the elk in Pennsylvania. The last Pennsylvania Elk was killed sometime in the late 1860s or early 1870s as a result of unregulated market hunting. In 1913 The Pennsylvania Game Commission released fifty animals in the north central part of the state. These animals were obtained from Yellowstone National Park. There were additional releases and in time the herd grew to the point that The PGC established a hunting season in 1923. Anyone with a general hunting license could kill an elk (bulls of 4 or more points were legal). In 1931 only one bull was killed and the season was closed in 1931 and remained so until 2001.

During this time the PGC lost interest in the herd and at times few even knew they existed, as what few remained stayed well away from human habitation in most cases. The population began to increase slowly in the 1950s.

Ralph recalls how he realized the elk herd was rebounding in the mid-1970s after a late August evening encounter with cows and calves in a meadow in which he heard bulls bugling in the woodlands. This so inspired him that he approached his boss the next day and outlined a proposal to help the elk herd survive and expand. Things progressed from there. A management plan was developed which included more public land acquisition and development of suitable elk habitat, but there were problems with a shortage of funds.

In a nutshell the PGC did re-introduce the elk in 1913, but when the population declined too much to support a hunt, they lost interest in the species. It was The Bureau of Forestry, inspired by Ralph Harrison that picked up the torch and brought the elk herd to the position it was in a few years ago. The PGC only entered the fray after Forestry had done the hard legwork to bring the herd back from the brink. It should be noted that this was the agency as a whole, not some of the dedicated Game Commission employees who were assigned to the area.

These included District Game Protectors Norm Erickson who served from late 1940s-1965 or 66, and Harold Harsbarger who ably filled the slot from 1966-97. PGC Wildlife Biologist Bill Drake was also numbered among these dedicated individuals. All were very interested in the welfare of the elk, even at times that The PGC as a whole was not.

If you can find Mr. Harrison’s books, they are well worth reading!

To be continued

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