Saturday, September 5, 2015

Importan Questions Answered About Gilbert Farm Viewing Area

PGC Northcentrail Information & Education Supervisor Doty McDowell  Speaks At Dedication
Yesterday morning as I traveled to Benezette to attend the dedication ceremony for the new viewing area on Winslow Hill,  I pondered the issues facing the agencies that control the vast public lands that comprise much of the elk range and how the attempt to resolve these issues effect persons such as I who view the situation from the perspective of a serious wildlife photographer and student of nature. This was foremost in my mind today as I would soon be attending the dedication of facilities that will significantly change wildlife viewing at the most popular elk viewing destination in Pennsylvania, an area where I have spent the vast majority of my time in elk country. As I drove I mentally compiled a list of several questions and concerns I  have heard from other photographers in face to face discussions, and commentary on the internet..

Land Management Officer Colleen Shannon was on the scene when I arrived.  As she is the supervisor of the crew that maintains the game lands on Winslow Hill I approached her with my concerns.

Land Management Officer Colleen Shannon
Many have expressed concern that the designated viewing area just off of the new parking lot is not large enough to hold the number of people that usually watch the area during the peak of the rut.  We were initially assured at a meeting with the PGC in early April that one would still be allowed to park along the old portion of Dewey Road and to stand there and photograph wildlife in the meadow, but as the project progressed it became clear that this was not likely the case so I asked LMO Shannon to address this.  She firmly stated that no parking or standing by the roadside will be permitted in this area of Dewey Road and that the signs have been ordered to post this restriction. According to her, the new viewing area provides a much better view of the area (from now on when I refer to viewing area in reference to this particular spot it is the area behind the stones in the photo below).  A primary goal of the project is to  isolate the public from the elk for safety reasons and to prevent habituation. The elimination of parking and standing along Dewey Road is part of the drive to end close-up elk viewing and to further encourage visitors to view from a distance.

Viewing Area
I asked if it would be permissible to stand outside the stones if that area is the viewing station is full  and it seemed one will be permitted to stand on the grass as long as they  are on the correct side of the Restricted signs, but I would not count on doing so until we see how things shake out during the peak period of the rut.

I also hoped to identify exactly who was responsible for the actual location of the boundaries of the restricted area in the saddle and asked Officer Shannon if she would clarify whether the boundaries were set at the state level (Harrisburg) l, the regional level (Jersey Shore) or the land management group level.  The answer as I understood it was that she and the elk biologist, Jeremy Banfield,  set the boundary lines working in conjunction with the Northcentral regional office of the PGC.

The purpose of this question was to determine if there was a possibility that a group of photographers could work together with the PGC in adjusting the boundaries to make The Saddle more usable to them while still conforming to the PGCs overall goals for the area.  I pointed out as an example the designated trail that goes into The Saddle and back to the area where the last pile of earth was before reclamation was complete. Naturally the road makes a convenient boundary, but allowing users to step a few  yards out of the road to the north would enable them to see the ridge to the north, which they cannot do at present. Shannon responded that," The Saddle is for elk and not for people", and went on to explain that the main concerns in setting up the restricted zone were safety and the habituation of elk. She further explained that on two instances last fall they had seen bulls chasing cows through groups of people and this could not be tolerated.   She went on to say that they didn't want people on top of the hill in The Saddle at the scenic lookout as there is often a lot of elk there and they don't want people interacting with them and don't want the people at the viewing area at the Gilbert Farm having to see all of the people on top of The Saddle.

I asked if we could expect the restricted areas to increase in size in the next few years and the answer was that if the current restrictions do not solve the problem there will be more.  She also told me that the original proposal was for a larger area to be restricted, but this was not adopted.

The official program began at 1:00 and featured a variety of speakers including, PGC Executive Director Matt Hough, and Northcentral Region Director, Barry Zaffuto.

Regional Director Zaffuto dealt with the history of how the viewing area on Dewey Road evolved over the years and went on to discuss in detail PGC concerns and goals in reference to the habituation of elk, which will hopefully be the subject of another post in the near future.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

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