2013-10-19 / Outdoors

Growing elk herd’s impact on economy


There’s no way of predicting where members of the Pennsylvania elk herd might show up. But when these animals appeared at the Elk Country Visitors Center on Winslow Hill it was a golden opportunity for shutterbugs. There’s no way of predicting where members of the Pennsylvania elk herd might show up. But when these animals appeared at the Elk Country Visitors Center on Winslow Hill it was a golden opportunity for shutterbugs. With public interest in Pennsylvania’s elk herd rapidly expanding, it’s obvious that conserving and developing this resource was a good idea for the region’s economy.

In the villages that surround the Elk Country Visitor Center near Benezette, and in the larger towns beyond its immediate shadow, small locally owned businesses are popping up or expanding to meet the growing demand of elk tourism.

Pennsylvania’s elk weren’t always a draw. They were hunted to extinction in the late 1800s and gone from the state’s landscape completely for about 50 years when, in 1913, the Pa. Game Commission reintroduced them.

The herd made a comeback, but by the early 1980s things did not look good, according to Rawley Cogan, president of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance (KECA). That’s the nonprofifit conservation group that runs the new Elk Country Visitor Center for the Pa. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“When I came here in ’82, we had about 100 elk,” said Cogan, who used to work as a biologist for the Game Commission. “Not many people knew they were here and even fewer cared.”

Poachers and farmers upset about crop degradation took a heavy toll on what elk there were.

Today’s elk herd is approximately 950. DCNR built the visitors’ center atop Winslow Hill using $6 million in tax dollars and another $6 million in private-sector donations.

In the three years since it opened, annual attendance has grown from 80,000 to 200,000. The center’s gift shop supports elk conservation as well as many local artisans and vendors.

The economic impact goes well beyond the center’s front doors.

At the base of Winslow Hill in Benezette, the Old Bull Café opened this summer in a renovated church. A block away, Doug and Sylvia Ruffo, longtime visitors to the area, opened Benezette Wines in a remodeled garage. A few doors away, Brian Kunes and Matt Castle have transformed the Benezette Hotel from a town bar into a family-friendly restaurant.

“There’s a lot more businesses popping up – gift shops, wineries, new restaurants, horse-back riding,” Kunes said. “There are more options. It’s not just ‘come see the elk’ anymore.”

And the foot traffific spills into neighboring towns and counties, creating opportunities there.

Mark and Evelyn Keiter started Misty Pines, a cabin rental in Cameron County, a few years ago after Mark got laid off from a steel mill in southeastern Pennsylvania.

“After visiting relatives in the area and seeing the elk for ourselves, we decided this was the area we wanted to live in,” Evelyn Keiter explained. “We sold our home and business and moved to Cameron County to escape the rat race.”

The Keiters bought 40 acres with a scenic view and transformed an abandoned house into two rental suites.

“We are loving it,” Mark Keiter said. “The possibility of seeing an elk or bear in our everyday travels does not grow old.”

Dave Morris, president of the Pennsylvania Wilds Tourism Marketing Corporation and head of the Great Outdoors Visitor Bureau, said elk tourism has continued to grow and improve the region’s economy.

“There is recognition of the area as a travel destination,” he noted.

(Editor’s Note: This story was excerpted from a feature story by Tataboline Enos, Pennsylvania Wilds.)

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