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Elk fundraising splits into 2 groups

| Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011

Winter is the time of year when sportsmen's groups all over hold fundraising banquets to pay for the work that goes on the rest of the year.

But this year, that's coming with a twist.

For the first time ever, two separate groups are raising money for elk, with the Greater Pittsburgh area at the heart of it all.

The Three Rivers Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has been holding banquets for decades with great success. It was the first chapter in the country to pass the $2 million mark in net profits and the first to pass $3 million. This year's banquet is Feb. 26 in Mars.

Just a few weeks before that, the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance — a group born largely of disgruntled RMEF members — will hold its first banquet. It's Feb. 5 in Monroeville.

The Alliance formed less than a year ago, when the Elk Foundation pulled its support for the Elk Country Visitor Center and the elk education and tourist facility located in Benezette, Elk County. That decision caused a deep rift. Some Elk Foundation members, like Ron Martz of Salem Township, an officer in the group's Three Rivers Chapter, listened to the arguments on both sides and decided to stick with the Foundation.

"I've always been about raising money for elk and elk habitat, and I think that's what we do," he said.

But others left the organization and, in time, formed the Alliance, which will keep all of its money in Pennsylvania and use it to operate the elk visitor center, do conservation education and perhaps land conservation, said secretary Mike Odasso of Kittanning. It's hosting its first five banquets planned this winter, with the others in Erie, Titusville, Indiana and St. Marys.

"Right now, we're still basically the unknown kids on the block," Odasso said. "But we know where we want to go and we're taking the baby steps to make sure we get things done right."

Each group faces challenges.

The RMEF banquet has room for 650 people. Even if it reaches that, attendance will only be about 60 percent of what it was a few years ago, Martz said.

"I think the economy has a lot to do with it," he said. "But we're trying. We have one of the wildest-looking banquets you'll ever see. You'll never see as many guns in one room as you will there."

Response to the Alliance banquet, meanwhile, has been "light," Odasso said. The group has the room to host 400 sportsmen at its event. So far, is has sold a little more than 150 tickets.

The Elk Visitor Center has been drawing larger crowds deeper into the winter than expected, though — attendance has topped 50,000 since its opening in September — and Odasso expects the banquet will catch on, too.

"All of our directors are people with long ties to conservation organizations and they're very knowledgeable and very energized, so we're optimistic things are going to work out. But it's a process," he said.

It won't be surprising if both events make money. Conservation groups across the state and country - like all organizations — have reported declines in fundraising the past few years, due to the economy. But Martz and Odasso point out that sportsmen have a history of supporting their sports.

The Three Rivers Chapter of the Elk Foundation once auctioned off a $100 bill for $3,200, for example, Martz said.

"That's the kind of people we have. They just get into it because they want to help elk and wildlife and have fun," he said.

Additional Information:

Banquet schedule

• The Pittsburgh Chapter of the Keystone Elk Country Alliance will hold its banquet Feb. 5 at the Double Tree Hotel in Monroeville. Individual tickets, which include a one-year Alliance membership, are $65. Couples tickets are $105, youth tickets for those 17 or younger are $45 and sponsor packages are available. The event will feature live and silent auctions, games, drawings, raffles, prizes and more. For tickets or information, contact Mike Odasso at 724-859-4243 or .

• The Three Rivers Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will hold its banquet Feb. 26 at the Four Points Sheraton North, 910 Sheraton Dr., Mars. Doors open at 3:30 p.m. Individual tickets, which include a one-year membership, cost $85. Couples tickets are $135 and various sponsor packages are available. This event will also feature auctions, games, raffles, drawings and more. For information, call Ron or Dorothy Martz at 724-668-7722.

The Elk Country Visitor Center has ties to the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Elk Country Alliance, which is supporting it, and the Three Rivers Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which purchased and donated the elk statue that stands outside its doors.

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