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Pittsburgh area prime fundraising ground

| Friday, Jan. 12, 2007

Mike Odasso lives in Kittanning, which isn't, by any means, the heart of elk country.

Pennsylvania's elk herd is limited to a dozen or so counties in northcentral region of the state, and they number fewer than 800. Hunters have never killed more than 68 of those in a year.

In Colorado, by comparison, the elk population is closer to 250,000 and hunters kill between 40,000 and 50,000 annually, more than in any other state.

Yet where is perhaps the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's most successful fundraising chapter located• Right here in Western Pennsylvania.

The Three Rivers Chapter of the Elk Foundation raises more than $200,000 in net profit at its banquet each year.

"Oh yeah, we're busy," said Odasso, who co-chairs the event. "We put a lot of work into it. Ours is definitely one of the biggest banquets in the country, if not the biggest for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation."

The Elk Foundation isn't alone in finding Western Pennsylvania to be fertile ground, however.

The National Wild Turkey Federation has 83 chapters spread across the state. They've combined to raise more than $4 million, making Pennsylvania only the second state to reach that milestone.

Among those leading the way has been the local chapter No. 1 in Hecla, which sponsors a banquet that is traditionally the most fruitful nationwide in gross and net dollars. Likewise, the banquet put on by PA's 1st Friends of the NRA in North Huntingdon has ranked in the top two out of about 1,000 similar events nationwide in terms of money raised for the National Rifle Association over the past two years.

The Fay-West Friends of the NRA banquet, based in Greensburg, has been in the top five over that same time frame.

"I think sportsmen in this area are pretty passionate, I really do," said Carl Mowry of Butler, the Turkey Federation's regional director for Western Pennsylvania. "Pennsylvania is a real strong state in general, but Western Pennsylvania falls right in there."

That's partly because Pennsylvania has an incredibly high number of hunters and shooters overall, Odasso said. The state is unique in the number of local sportsmen's clubs it has, too, Mowry added.

It's also true that hunters and shooters who attend fundraising banquets can go home with some impressive prizes. The Three Rivers Chapter of the RMEF will raffle off $60,000 to $80,000 worth of guns the night of the event, for example.

The sportsmen who pay $50, $80 or even hundreds of dollars to attend these events come out for more than just the prizes, though, said Chuck Gaffron, who co-chairs the PA's 1st Friends of the NRA banquet.

"There are a lot of good supporters in this area, but they don't come out just because it's a gun bash," he said. "They come because they believe in the cause and in raising money to support youth programs and ranges and what not."

That's a hallmark of all of these events. A portion of the money raised by all of the groups stays in Pennsylvania to support youth field days, wildlife habitat improvements, shooting range improvements, school rifle teams, etc.

That, as much as anything, brings sportsmen out with their wallets in hand, Odasso said.

"A lot of guys go to these banquets because they want to win, sure," he said. "But, by and large, most of them believe in the mission."

Banquet season

The Three Rivers Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will have its annual fundraising banquet Feb. 17 at the Four Points by Sheraton Pittsburgh North in Mars (Cranberry). Doors open at 3 p.m., with dinner at 6 or 7 p.m. Admission is $80 per person, which includes a membership in the RMEF. Couples get in for $130 and there are various sponsor packages available. For tickets or information, call Mike Odasso at 724-548-8101 or Ron or Dorothy Martz at 724-668-7722.

• The National Wild Turkey Federation is holding several fundraising banquets in the coming weeks. The Moraine Chapter will hold an event Feb. 3 in Butler; the Penns Woods Spurs Chapter in Delmont is having its banquet Feb. 9; and the Steel City Spurs Chapter in Castle Shannon is holding its banquet March 2. The Mon Valley Longbeards banquet in Monessen will be March 3. For tickets or information about any of the events, call Carl Mowry at 724-283-5708.

• The PA's 1st Friends of the NRA banquet is set for 4 p.m. Feb. 10 at Stratigos Banquet Center in North Huntingdon. Admission is $45 per person, though there are various sponsor packages available, too. More than $60,000 in prizes will be handed out, and Sandy Froman, president of the NRA, will be in attendance. For tickets or information, call Chuck Gaffron at 724-863-5945 after 7 p.m. or Dale Emerick at 724-863-4651 or 412-580-1642.

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