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Pa. counts on elk to help

State officials hope a new center for viewing the animals drives tourism.

BENEZETTE, Pa. - Through a light morning fog, two elk emerged in a clearing before disappearing a moment later behind a thick stand of trees, a teaser for guests arriving early at the ceremonial opening of Pennsylvania's first elk visitors center.

The elk did come back, and the state may not be far behind them.

Along with the Marcellus Shale natural-gas reserve, Pennsylvania officials hope the state's north-central region's most promising other economic engine will be a hulking creature that can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds.

Years in the works, the Elk Country Visitors Center opened this fall in hopes of turning the commonwealth into a prime destination to view the majestic animal.

"We built it, and they will come," Gov. Rendell said.

And the governor hopes tourists will bring their wallets. Building on the "Pennsylvania Wilds" tourism campaign that plays up outdoor getaways, Rendell and business leaders are optimistic the attraction will help money flow into a rural area that has long struggled financially.

The gas drilling and so-called wildlife tourism are potential rural economic drivers in relatively early stages of development, though there are worries they could be in conflict.

Marcellus drilling isn't pervasive in Elk County, home of the visitors center, but John Quigley, state conservation and natural resources secretary, promised that Pennsylvania would keep close watch on how the rapid growth of the natural-gas industry might affect the tourism investment and the elk herd, estimated at about 725.

"We had to plant this flag to make a strong statement about conservation and about the place of natural resources in this economy," Quigley said. "If anything, the Marcellus makes this more important. . . . We're hoping the mind-set carries forward."

The visitors center - built through a partnership between the state and the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, with $6 million each from the commonwealth and private funding - has the charm of the foyer of a country lodge. There's a fireplace and large windows that look out on a serene field where the elk come to graze in the evening.

What's different are the two roughly 6-foot models of elk on display in the middle of the round main exhibit area.

"We're going to try to drive around here and see if we can see the elk," said Joe Zandarski, 38, of Butler. He had driven about an hour from the camp where he, his wife, and two young children were vacationing in Mount Jewett.

September and October are considered the best time to see elk, during their mating season, though late fall and winter may also provide good viewing opportunities.

"Going to the zoo is one thing," Zandarski said, his 2-year-old son Zachary in tow, "but to see it in its natural habitat is something special."

A century ago, it wouldn't have been possible.

Elk roamed throughout Pennsylvania before logging, human settlement, and hunting eliminated them in the 1860s. About 50 years later, the Pennsylvania Game Commission began introducing the first of about 170 Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park.

Rendell was so taken with the animals during the opening ceremony that he said the bugling calls of elk during mating season were "one of the most amazing sounds I had heard in my life."

The governor has cited a Pennsylvania Wilds Planning team report showing that attendance and state sales-tax revenue were up slightly in the Wilds region from the middle of the last decade to 2008. The number of hotels in the region has increased by more than a third during that period, to 43.

Brian Kunes owns the eight-room Benezette Hotel down the road from the visitors center. He plans to expand in part because of more business from elk watchers and the hope of year-round business rather than just busy times around hunting and leaf-peeping seasons.

Visitors center organizers "think they can maintain it all year long, and for me, that's good," Kunes said.

Elk remain far more plentiful in the mountains of the West; according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Colorado has the largest herd - 292,000, followed by Montana with 150,000 and Oregon with 120,000.