My last trip to Pennsylvania elk country was October 23rd, approximately one week before the PA elk season. As I checked out familiar haunts for the possibility of some lingering rut action there was something missing from the experience and I was glad. For nearly a month and a half a bull known as Limpy was a regular sight in these parts, his distinctive bugle was unmistakable and it was almost strange not hearing it bellow out from somewhere among the hills. Most who journey to Winslow Hill and are even fairly familiar with the herd knew of Limpy as he has been one of the most visible and 'tourist friendly' bulls in the area. It was rare that I exchanged words with someone in the elk range that didn't know who this bull was. In a way, I suppose he had become the unofficial mascot of the herd in the Benezette area since the death of old Fred.
Limpy's absence on this day gave me hope that he was well on his way to where he had managed to survive countless hunting seasons. I had last photographed him on October 10th and on that day I was surprised he was still hanging around with a harem of cows. His rack this year, while impressive, was not his best and it appeared that he was on the decline in terms of antler growth. That, along with a broken tine gave me hope that it would increase his chances of surviving the coming hunt. It may be a strange train of thought coming from a hunter such as myself but I was definitely rooting for the old boy.
As a hunter I have put my name into the elk lottery drawing, not expecting there to be much chance of my name being pulled. Though I did not draw a tag again in 2014, I couldn't help but wonder what I would do if I had and met up with Limpy while out. With every encounter I had with this bull during the rut, many of them within range of a bow, I knew there was no way I could ever shoot a bull like this and have a clear conscience. To me, there would be no sportsmanship involved in the hunt of an animal that had absolutely no fear of humans which was the case with Limpy. It would be akin to shooting my own dog. Hunting is about more than a rack or mounted head on a wall, it is more than being about ego and bragging rights, it is supposed to be a challenge.
Limpy was killed on the second day of the elk hunt by a young hunter on a guided hunt. As soon as I heard about it I knew it would stir up quite a bit of controversy as this was a beloved bull to many. Even for a hunter like me it was a punch to the gut, it was hard for me to believe that anyone could guide a hunter to a bull like this and take money in return for doing so. Make no mistake, Limpy was a wild animal and certainly not a pet, nor should he have been considered as such. Still, he was probably one of the tamest elk around. You see, there is a heavy push for tourism in the elk range and it has been wildly successful. To those who have never been to Benezette in the fall you would almost have to see it to believe it. This is what acclimates elk such as Limpy to people. There have been attempts to cast blame on certain groups for acclimating the elk but there is no one group at fault. Nearly eveyone who travels to the area in the fall carries a camera or video recorder. Wildlife photographers and yes, even elk guides film and photograph bulls throughout the year. Horseback riders often have close encounters with the elk as well and the area is very popular for riding and hiking. There is no one group that is any more guilty than the other at getting these animals used to people. Still, there are certain animals that take to people more than others and they are usually very well known.
Now, in the aftermath of Limpy's death the controversy continues to stir. There are a couple of things that I think need to be addressed. Again, there is no one group responsible for acclimating the elk, it is a by-product of tourism and that tourism is pushed even by the likes of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Secondly, I think there is a responsibility by those involved with the elk hunt to create a positive image of hunting. I don't believe guiding a hunter to a bull such as this accomplishes that, in fact, as we can see from the conflict it has created there has been the exact opposite effect. Why create bad press for hunting by doing something that you know is going to cause a stink? Yes, it was legal but it sure doesn't paint the picture of fair chase to target an animal that is known by so many to have absolutely no fear of humans.
There is no doubt that the elk need to be kept in check with the habitat and social conflicts with man. Hunting is by far the best way to do this but I don't feel that it should be done without regard to sportsmanship or the image it creates of hunting. Hunting is about far more than the kill and that seems to be lost in this age of antler obsession, tv hunting shows, and hunting celebrities. It has become all about money, ego, and who can shoot the biggest buck, bull, or whatever. Respect for the animal killed is thrown out the window to glorify those who took it down and animals are killed solely to gain that glory. I don't happen to be a fan of where hunting has been headed over the years, it seems worse to me now than ever before.
I've been heading to the elk range for many years, not always as a photographer. Elk in the state of Pennsylvania have always seemed to come with conflict in one form or another and it continues to this day. As the commercialization of Winslow Hill goes forward the conflicts about elk and how they are managed will probably only escalate. Increased tourism and social media will put the hunt for these animals further under the microscope. As a hunter and sportsman (being one doesn't necessarily make one the other) I hope that those involved with this hunt will take the time to see the image they are portraying and realize something that is legal doesn't always equate to it being right. To me, there is a real lack of hunting in it's truest sense with the PA elk hunt and that seems to be par for the course for the direction hunting is headed today.
As a hunter it is probably easier for me than some to come to grips with the loss of this animal, yet I do fully understand the sentiment of the non-hunting community on this issue. Limpy will be missed by thousands and there will be a void when September rolls around later this year. Do the gains of a few outweigh the loss that comes to so many and is it worth all of the controversy and negative publicity that this decision has brought?