I think we often underestimate how early environmental devastation came to the eastern states. Around 1800, the Connecticut River had been dammed and one of the inestimable runs of shad and Atlantic Salmon halted. Maine lost most of its evergreens (and hardwoods too) in the early 1800’s. It’s tall pines had gone for ship masts earlier than this. Henry Thoreau complained of the lack of trees and wild creatures in the vicinity of Concord by the mid Nineteenth Century and even the wild west lost its buffalo herds in the 1870’s.
Here in Pennsylvania, elk were already rare in the early 1800’s. I guess it’s just difficult to hide from hunters when you’re a 500 pound ungulate. Habitat destruction – loss of the great Allegheny Plateau forests – had much to do with it though. By about 1880, it seemed that these roving giants would never be heard bugling across the Allegheny Front again.
About 1910, elk from Yellowstone were again introduced, though not the aboriginal eastern stock (which were extirpated) but cows and bulls from an overpopulated Yellowstone.
This year Susan and I spent January first on an unofficial elk survey which basically meant driving and a little hiking around elk county where, strangely enough, Pennsylvania’s elk are concentrated. It seems that they really concentrate close to Sinnemahoning Creek in winter and so it’s easy to see a lot. They’re not timid either – we could have fed or petted some if we were inclined. Oh, and we found 110 this year.
I think though that the elk are back because of habitat recovery. Through most of the 20th Century, the vestige population refused to grow significantly but then took off in the ’80’s, burgeoning to a present total of over a thousand. This coincides with habitat recovery in this once timbered, farmed and mined region.
The elk are just about the most ostentatious of the creatures that have come back across Pennsylvania due to widespread habitat recovery but the present list includes deer (of course), bear, bobcat, fisher, mink, fox and otter, to list just some of the obvious mammals. There’s much reason for optimism as populations of all of these continue to rise and ranges expand.
Things were devastated in so many ways before Drake ever struck oil in the state. Almost all the forests had already been cut at least once. But today Pennsylvania is a place of deep green dark, lush forest full of wild things. The trend line looks good here in the Alleghenies.