Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An Unpleasant Encounter In Pennsylvania Elk Country

Dawn on September 29th, 2010 found me slowly moving toward my favorite elk photography spot as the thunderous bugles of bull elk rent the autumn air.  On this morning I was accompanied by three other persons,  my brother Coy of Country Captures, and our good friend Richard and one of his relatives.

Approaching The Favorite Spot: Photo by W.Hill
Over the years this spot has rewarded me with some of the most exciting experiences I have had in the great outdoors.   These experiences included numerous encounters with large numbers of exceptional bull elk.  In 2003 I saw and recorded the mating of a bull and cow, and the best experience of all was when I recorded a fight between what is now known as Bull 36 (Fred) and an impressive monster known as the Test Hill Bull.  This fight is part of the theater presentation at the new Elk Country Visitor Center today.

Little did I realize that  my  memories of the area would soon be tainted forever by a very unpleasant encounter.  Suddenly I spotted a young bull elk horning a sapling above me on the hill side and began to position the camera to film him, when suddenly I spotted something out of place in the tall grass that grew alongside the pathway in front of me.  I swung the camera toward the spot and was amazed to see that two persons were crouched in the grass.  What had drawn my attention was the reflection from the hunting license attached to the back of one of the persons.

A Surprise: Photo by W.Hill
It seemed likely that this was the hunter who had the Governor's Conservation elk tag for this year.  This is a special bull permit that is awarded to the highest bidder in an auction conducted by some prominent conservation organization chosen by the PGC.  The first drawing was in 2009 when the tag was auctioned by the National Wild Turkey Federation and brought in $28,000.  According to state law up to 20% of the proceeds may be retained by the organization that conducts the auction while the rest is returned to the PGC to fund elk management programs. In this the second year, the tag was given to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and was auctioned off for $35,000.  The successful bidder is permitted to harvest one bull elk anywhere in the Pennsylvania elk range except for the No Hunt Zone and according to the 2010-11 Pennsylvania Hunting and Trapping Digest, may hunt from September 1st through November 6th.

At this point I decided to maintain my position and photograph the young bull, which in fact the other members of the party were already doing. Note: most photos in this post are frame captures from a Canon XL-H1 Video Camera.

Young Bull Rubbing Sapling: Photo by W.Hill
As I was filming the bull I noticed movement to the left and the hunter and guide emerged from cover and walked away from the area, vanishing into a ravine some distance away.

Hunter and Guide Leave Area: Photo by W.Hill
After they vanished from sight, I moved on to my favorite spot on a retention pond bank while the rest of the party continued to photograph the small bull.  From this vantage point I could see the top of the rack of a mature bull and signaled the rest of the party that a large bull was on top of the hill.  At the time the animal was lying down, but soon stood up.  This animal had been injured earlier in the rut and walked with a distinct limp.  He spent much of the week of September 20th lying in a camp lawn along Winslow Hill Road, but now he had moved some distance away to this meadow where a newly reclaimed area was planted in fall grain.

Coy Hill Photographs Bull Lying Down: Photo by W.Hill

In time the bull stood up and I was able to photograph the entire animal.  This particular animal has no fear whatsoever of humans and will not run from them.

Crippled Bull: Photo by W.Hill
While the rest of the party were photographing the bull, I noticed the hunter and guide walking up a ravine to my left.  They stopped at the cluster of trees to the right of the large mound of earth and stayed there for an extended period of time.

View From Pond Bank To Ravine: Photo by W.Hill

When the other members of my party finished photographing the bull, they came down the hill to the pond bank where I was standing.  We discussed the morning's encounter with the bulls and waited in the hopes that more elk would appear.

Facing Area Where Bull Had Been, Shows Hillside That Hunter And Guide Approached Us By: Photo by C.Hill

After a time the hunter and guide came along the hillside in front of where I am standing in the above photo and then came striding down the hillside to us.  The hunter asked us if we were aware that they were conducting a hunt in the area.  He explained that these were game lands purchased by hunting license dollars to be used for hunting purposes. They were working a bull in the area and we had interfered with them.  (It is a violation of the Pennsylvania Game and Wildlife Code to interfere with a lawful hunt), At this time I invited the hunter to file charges against me so we could settle this in a court of law.  (In actuality he would need to report the incident to a PGC officer who would investigate and decide if a violation had in fact occurred, and  file charges if warranted).  I also asked the hunter if he was accusing me of harassing him and he said," no", at which point I informed him that he was coming dangerously close to harassing me.  I then turned to the guide and recapped the events of the morning, noting that I was coming to an area that I utilize quite frequently and in fact was my favorite spot for elk viewing an photography. I had done exactly the same thing on several morning's and evenings in the last two weeks and the only thing that was different today was that they (the hunting party) were in the area this morning.  I stopped immediately upon sighting them, did not create a disturbance and did not move until until after they left the area.   I asked the guide if he had a problem with this and he said that he did not.  They then wished us "a good day" and "good luck" and left the area while we remained for some time in the hopes of further elk sightings.

The crux of the matter is that we were engaged in a  legal activity in an area where we had every legal right to be.  As far as I know, the guide and hunter were also engaged in a legal activity in an area where they had the legal right to be.  It would have been inappropriate for us to approach them while they were hunting and discuss the ethics of the situation in which they were involved, to purposefully frighten the animal they were hunting, or otherwise prevent them from hunting it, but simply being in the same area is not interfering with the hunt.

Some will think he had a point about the land being bought with hunting license dollars for hunting purposes, but this is not nearly as valid as it appears at first glance.  For one thing one would need to research the matter to see just how that portion of State Game Lands 311 was purchased, as  funds from a variety of sources other than hunting license dollars are often utilized in such land transactions.  Also it is likely that most if not all in our party either buy a hunting license each year or have done so in the past.  I bought my first license at somewhere between fourteen and sixteen years of age and continued to do so until 1998 when I quit hunting.  My brother Coy bought his first license at a young age and continues to do so today, so it is not a simple case of hunters vs anti-hunters or hunters vs non-consumptive users.

Since I am about eight years older than the hunter, but stopped buying a license twelve years ago, it is possible that he has only had been a license holder for four more years than I have been-although he could have started buying his license at twelve years of age, which would bias the scale a bit more in his favor, but that being said, I have contributed almost as much to the game fund by buying a license as he has, yet it seems persons such as I should not be on the game lands or at least not while hunters are present.

But he spent $35,000 for a special tag so that puts him far ahead of me in contributing to wildlife conservation, or does it?  I was a Deputy Wildlife Conservation Officer (DWCO) from 1982 until 2006 and served in a district which had a  large number of deputies.Coy began a few years later and retired in the same time period that I did.  During my early years with the PGC it was common to be allocated twelve paid days per year, which were paid during the fall hunting seasons.  At the sum of $30.00 per day this resulted in a total income of $360.00 per year before taxes, yet we were young and motivated and it was common to work 40 to 100 hours per month during the months of September, October, November, and December.  In addition I have donated numerous photographs and video footage to the PGC for their use, and Coy has donated numerous photos as well.  In addition I retired from the full-time position of Game Lands Maintenance Supervisor for Fulton County and portions of Bedford and Franklin Counties. Considering this I think our contribution to wildlife conservation has been significant.

With that being said though, these factors shouldn't enter the equation.  The area where they were hunting should still be part of the No Hunt Zone as it was from the first Hunt in 2001 until 2005 as most elk in this area are completely acclimated to humans and are easily approachable. . With over 865,000 square miles of elk range, why must there be elk hunting in this particular area, and how could a hunter expect privacy during the peak elk viewing season-or did they expect that everyone should stay away from the area in the off chance that they might be hunting there? The area in question is quite near the Gilbert Viewing Area and is open to the public. The hunters should have expected to encounter other persons and in fact the area was inundated with people during the previous weekend.

One should be required to have either a valid hunting license, or a  Game Lands use permit to be present on State Game Lands.  This would ensure that everyone contributed financially to wildlife conservation and  would remove the argument that non-hunters do not contribute to wildlife conservation and should not be there during hunting seasons.

For more reading about this subject please visit Country Captures and read Elk Hunt Zone 2 & The Viewing Areas.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill


Anonymous said...

You are correct. One should expect to encounter many people during this time of year in Benezette, especially in that area.
Also, I agree that this area should be a no hunt zone. I will never understand why the hunting cannot be done in the 'wild' areas. Actually, I do understand why - it would take effort on the hunter and guide's part. Killing a human acclimated animal is just that - killing. This is not a fair chase hunt.

Dina said...

Your title here made me hope no one or no animal was going to get shot in this post.
Glad you stood your ground so well.

richard l coy said...

I want to first thank Willard and Coy for accepting my friendship . We have got together on occasion an few times and enjoyed each and every moment with them.
I was really surprised at the closeness that there was in this particular area to the no hunt zone. It just stirs my mind that I was actually seeing this happening so close to viewing area 1.
I had been told this was happening but seeing first hand is very disturbing.
I have always been against hunting these elk any where in Pa. guess may my love of wildlife and my photography has some thing to do with it. I find all wildlife beautiful in their own sort of ways and the poses some have given me in the past years has been more than astonishing to me.
This particular day tho has really opened my eyes to the greed of the Pa. game commission. How could they open this hunting range so close to the viewing areas is beyond me. In my eyes its all about the money as is most any thing they do these days is.
It is my utter most wish that others will soon se this and get the same feelings others like myself have regarding the hunt in Elk county.

V.L. Locey said...

Wow, that was quite the encounter you had Willard. Thankfully it didn`t end in anything other than a few heated words.

Misty DawnS said...

I agree that area should be a no hunt zone, since the animals are used to humans. Willard, I commend you for standing your ground.

Coy Hill said...

Very accurate description of the events of the morning Willard.

That the hunter contributed a great deal of money for the PGC to use in its elk management & habitat improvement is undeniable. However with the number of elk viewers frequenting this area and the adjacent viewing areas during the rut this was a poor choice of places to "hunt."

Shooting a bull here risked a PR disaster for the hunt if an animal had been wounded and allowed to suffer with so many viewers watching.

Gretchen said...

I'll be in the region tomorrow to have lunch with the Governor and attend the grand opening of the Elk Viewing Center. Will you be there? Would love to finally meet the man behind the lens! I'll be in black, carrying a massive Nikon D200 and carrying a huge messanger bag with more lenses, flashes, etc... I'm hard to miss. :)

I would have stood my ground, too. It bothers me that anyone would pay that kind of money to slaughter what might as well be a pet. They have no fear of humans. What kind of sport is it? Why not just tie it to a tree and have the mighty "hunter" go beat it to death with a stick.

If not tomorrow, I hope we get to meet some day. Your photos inspire me to get out and take more myself. I only wish I had half your talents.

Kritter Keeper at Farm Tails said...

i knew exactly what you were writing about when i glanced at the title of your post...what a waste of money, 35 grand to hunt, the idiot has more money than brains in my humble opinion. i hope the injured bull remains hidden and this man fails at killing or maiming an elk. perhaps he will sprain/break his ankle so he cannot hunt for a long time. whomever set up the rules for this hunt should have had the foresight to eliminate your area. a human could have been killed accidently. i am glad you do not hunt anymore.

Brad Myers said...

Willard, I am glad he struck out the two times he was in Zone 2. I was torn this morning on if I should go with you guys or on my own. I wasn't looking for a fight since I always have one in Harrisburg these days and I really needed a few keepers from the wet and warm trip.

Thanks again for letting me tag along this year, your friends are great and I look forward to seeing them again next year. They make up for the lack of rutting activity most of the week.

SNP is looking great, many 8 pointers running around including a 9 and 10 pointer today. I hope I see you and Coy there next month.

Peggy said...

I don't hunt, but with this information, I have just been educated. I will now now start buying licenses every year just for this cause.
Thanks for the education Willard!

Unknown said...


I am sorry to hear about the encounter. Much of "hunting" today has become a money thing and there is little to be called hunting. I continue to be amazed that anyone would want to participate in such a "shoot" versus hunt.