Why We Should Remember the Pennsylvania Elk

By Jillian Smith

There are 207 people living in the town of Benzette. There are also nearly a thousand elk in the area surrounding the town. Located in the heart of Allegheny National State Forest, the town of more elk than people is surrounded by beauty that one may have thought only belonged in Yosemite. When I traveled there last weekend, the rolling hills were aflame with a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges and yellows of birches and beeches interspersed with stately looking conifers. The Clarion River shoots through Benzette and around the hills like high-energy silver ribbon. Bald eagles dive for fish just beneath its surface.

While the scenery and isolation is a draw for the outdoorsy spirit, the undisputed attraction for travelers is the elk herd. People LOVE these elk. The county even went so far as to change its name to Elk County. There are entire restaurants, bars, wineries and festivals named for the elk and devoted to those who go see the elk.  It’s easy to understand why. The elk are quite exquisite. These creatures can weigh 900 pounds and prance down the Allegheny Mountains with the grace of a dancer. They can smash together antlers in epic battles. They thunder across fields in the 5 a.m. morning mist with a call that seems a kind of invitation to a primitive wildness.

However, the great, truly wonderful thing about the elk, the thing that makes them the most remarkable, is that at the beginning of the 20th century, they were not there. Due to overhunting, the elk had been brought to extinction. For many years, the forests sat empty of their most valued inhabitant. In the 1950s, however, a group of 50 elk were brought over from Wyoming. Frustratingly slowly, the elk population has finally reached a point that wildlife experts deem sustainable.

What can the elk and the wildlife workers teach us about our time here at YSU?

Don’t get frustrated.

In our studies, and in life in general, the general monotony of the daily actions needed in order to eventually get to where we want to be can be disheartening. The three daily hours you may devote to studying for a mystifying math class, when you can’t see any progress being made, can make you feel hopeless. The elk are an embodiment of what you will sometimes experience at Youngstown State University. Progress can be annoyingly slow.

For many years, the wildlife workers of Central Pennsylvania fought hard for tiny victories. Three more elk this year. Five more the next. It would have been easy for these wildlife workers to get discouraged at the slow progress and chalk up their work to a failed experiment. But instead, each day a decision was made to continue on creating an environment for success.  With each 9-5 day, showing up, devoting hours and labor, continually choosing to put in the effort even when no positive returns were visible, the workers eventually helped to create one of the largest elk herds on the eastern half of the United States.

It is often not in grand sweeping moments that success comes to us. It is in those unsexy moments, the ones when you are simply choosing to go forward and not stop, that can be summed up to look back on after much time and see the full reality of success perched from atop our new vantage point of an earned place.

As midterm season closes in around us, draw inspiration from him and the elk. Maybe your progress is slow now. But know that one day, you will be in a place much father from where you started, as long as you choose not to stop.