Debate begins over introducing elk in Northeast

Advocates expect boost to tourism

foes worry about hazards

November 23, 2001|By Winnie Hu | Winnie Hu,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In his red pickup, Dave Messics navigated the dark, bumpy road in a remote part of the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania to a hillside shrouded in mist. Before cutting the engine, he cautioned his out-of-town guests that there might not be anything to see at daybreak.

Just then, a shrill whistle blasted the air, followed by loud, unseemly grunts. Messics, binoculars in hand, jumped out to join the people lined up by the roadside for a glimpse of the main attraction: a herd of wild elk.

"Well, I feel like a weight is off my shoulders," he said. "We saw the elk and heard them bugle. I've had some days I drive around for hours without finding one."

Messics, the director of Northeast field operations for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, is leading an effort to reintroduce wild elk, like those in the Alleghenies, to the Catskills of New York. The original herds disappeared more than a century ago because of unregulated hunting and a loss of habitat from logging and farming. Now some residents, business owners and town officials see the elks' return as a way to promote tourism in a struggling area once famed for its summer resorts.

But others, including farmers and wildlife advocates, point to conflicts between humans and the thriving deer population of more than 1 million. Last year alone in New York, there were 9,253 reported motor vehicle collisions involving deer, and 1,409 complaints about crop and property damage from deer, according to state records.

A bigger hazard

These opponents argue that the elk - which are three to four times the size of deer - would only cause more car collisions, devour more fields and gardens and spread more infectious diseases. "It's absolutely idiotic and dangerous," said Phil Sullivan, a retired electronics consultant in Woodstock, N.Y. "It's bad enough to hit a deer. If you hit an 800-pound elk, you're going to be very badly injured."

The elk foundation, a group based in Montana, has campaigned to return wild elk to rural areas where they once roamed. Since 1995, it has spent $2.6 million to reintroduce the elk in Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Ontario. Another $1.5 million has been used to buy 6,203 acres to expand elk habitats in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Michigan and Minnesota.

In New York, the foundation has spent more than $250,000 to promote a plan to release as many as 100 wild elk somewhere in the Catskills in the next five years. It has commissioned a feasibility study by wildlife experts, made nearly 200 presentations to local government and community groups, and last August, held four public meetings in the Catskills that drew about 600 people.

Tourism dollars

Wally John, a West Shokan, N.Y., resident who heads the foundation's 100-member Catskills chapter, said the elk would bring tourism dollars to local businesses and fill a gap in the ecosystem. "Elk were here when Henry Hudson sailed up the river," he said.

But Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Conservation, said state environmental officials have raised concerns about not only the biological and social impacts of reintroducing the elk, but also the expense of managing another species in a state where bald eagles, peregrine falcons and river otters have all been reintroduced in the last 30 years. The department is to begin reviewing the elk plan in January.

Some wildlife advocates, including Anne Muller, president of Wildlife Watch in New Paltz, N.Y., have accused the elk foundation of wanting to bring back the elk simply so that its members could eventually hunt them. "We're in the peculiar position of having to advocate against the reintroduction of elk," she said, "for the sake of the species and the individual animals who will suffer."

Though the elk foundation's 130,000 members include many hunters, Messics and others said the goal of their elk campaign was simply to return the animals to their native habitats. "Whether you're talking about bald eagles or bobcats," he said, "there's a real push to restore wildlife populations where they once were, where they no longer are."

The Pennsylvania elk herd has grown steadily since the late 1980s as wildlife groups including the elk foundation have invigorated the restoration effort and raised money to buy land for the elk habitat. The current herd of about 700 is descended from 177 Rocky Mountain elk that were released by the state game commission from 1913 to 1926.

Though the elk often wander across roads and onto private property, wildlife and tourism officials say the herd has not caused significant problems and has proven over all to be a sound, economic investment. Thousands of tourists trek annually to Benezette, in central Pennsylvania, to see the wild elk. The Pennsylvania Game Commission recently held its first elk hunt in 65 years after choosing 30 hunters at random from 52,000 applicants.

The `bugle burger'

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