This fall is shaping up to be another tremendous year for big bull harvests across the Rocky Mountain States. If you enjoy martial music, here are the best places in the Rockies to hear a bugle. Let’s take a look at our Rocky Mountain elk hunting forecast.
Although Arizona’s elk population is just a fraction of other states, it is arguably the top trophy location in the West. Overall, the elk population is faring well, but the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) is making attempts to manage elk populations in specific areas. Some populations are being managed on a micro level to stabilize elk numbers or to help regenerate disturbed areas where fires have damaged habitat. The result of the regeneration work is usually high-quality forage, which leads to maximum antler growth.
In general, last year’s harvest statistics were comparable to recent years. However, several units around the state had higher harvest rates than in past years. “I think the year 2010, as a whole, was a successful one for the state,” said Lance Crowther, owner of Timberland Outfitters. When asked which unit was Arizona’s best, Crowther said, “If you stick with the major elk units in Arizona, then it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re going to have a great opportunity at a world-class hunt.”
Rick Langley, Region 3 game specialist, believes that units 1 and 27 will produce great elk hunting this fall. High precipitation totals over the last few years have produced favorable habitat conditions in these units. The outlook is favorable in the central region of the state as well. “While units 5B, 7E, 7W, and 8 still hold higher numbers of elk, any unit could hold record-book animals,” Tom McCall, Region 2 game specialist, said. Top trophy areas include: 1, 3, 9, 10, 23 and 27.
With over 20 million acres of public land and an estimated elk population of over 285,000, Colorado is an elk hunter’s paradise. In 2010, 214,536 elk hunters took 48,018 elk, for an overall success rate of 22 percent. Elk hunters should enjoy similar success this fall.
“Overall, the elk in Colorado are doing quite well,” Randy Hampton, CDOW statewide public information officer, said. According to Hampton, the northwest portion of the state, which includes GMUs 1, 2, 10 and 201 is continuing to produce quality bulls. The White River elk herd, just south of Craig, continues to be one of North America’s largest herds, with an estimated 42,000 animals. In southern Colorado, “We have had a few easy winters in a row. The elk herd is strong, with lots of elk,” said Fred Eichler, owner of Full Draw Outfitters.
Colorado has large tracts of public land with several wilderness areas where hunters can get away from other hunters and into areas that hold high numbers of elk. Hampton suggests getting in top shape and backpacking or horseback riding into one of these areas. Wilderness areas can be found in the Middle Park/Kremmling, Grand Mesa and Durango areas.
Since Colorado is a preference point state, it takes several points to draw the state’s top trophy tags: GMUs 1, 2, 10, 201, 61, 76 and 851. In most cases, it takes at least 10 preference points to draw these coveted tags. Other units, such as GMU 40, are on the rise for trophy-caliber bulls, and can be drawn with less than 10 preference points.
Elk hunting has changed drastically in Idaho over the last few years. Statewide, elk populations have decreased from a high of about 125,000 in the mid-90s to the current estimate of around 100,000 animals. Wolf populations have increased in the state and there is speculation by the Idaho Game & Fish (IDGF) that wolves have affected elk populations. In correlation, hunter numbers are down as well. Most recent numbers indicate that 87,022 hunters took 15,813 elk for an overall success rate of 18 percent. Although populations of elk and hunters are lower, the IDFG is estimating that hunter success will remain consistent with numbers dating back as far as 20 years ago.
Senior Wildlife Research Biologist Craig White stated that most of the state’s elk decline has occurred in the central region of the state in backcountry areas. “Although there are fewer elk in the backcountry elk zones of Idaho, some hunters still report good backcountry hunting experiences. Other front country zones offer better access with fair to good experiences,” said White. White indicated that controlled rifle hunts on the eastern, western, and southern edges of the state where bull/cow ratios are high are the most likely trophy hotspots for the fall. Over-the-counter tags are available for the Diamond Creek, Beaverhead and Panhandle areas, which offer archery elk hunters a high-quality hunt.
Elk habitat in Idaho is steep, rugged and remote. Hunters entering and hunting in the state should take the necessary precautions to remain safe in backcountry and wilderness areas. Wolves are present, and elk hunters have noticed behavioral changes in elk because of this. “Hunters report that elk are adapting to the presence of wolves and sometimes this results in elk that move around more, do not stay in the open as long and are not always as vocal as in the past,” said White. The IDGF encourages all hunters to use their department Web site and to call state biologists to research hunting opportunities more completely.
Approximately 115,000 elk range across 38 million acres of habitat throughout the state, which includes 148 hunting districts. The majority of elk in Montana populate the western half of the state. According to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (MFWP), approximately 50 percent of the annual elk harvest comes from the southwestern region of the state, and over the last 20 years the average success rate for all hunts combined is 20 percent. Additionally, on average hunters spend 10 to 12 days in the field prior to making a harvest and approximately four percent of hunters harvest a six-point or bigger bull annually.
The majority of elk harvested in the state are taken by resident hunters who understand elk movement in remote country or by non-residents who hire outfitters. “Older-aged elk are often associated with limited entry (special permit) seasons and large blocks of remote habitat,” Quentin Kujala, FWP wildlife management section supervisor, said. This fall Region 3, specifically the Gallatin and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests, is again a likely hotspot for a trophy bull. Like the surrounding states, Montana is comprised of remote, rugged and steep backcountry.
Local hunter Randy Newberg believes that the past two years were above average, and feels that this may affect elk hunting this fall. “I think the 2011 season in general will be average; not what 2009 and 2010 were,” Newberg said.
Although the elk population is just over an estimated 11,000 animals, Nevada has great trophy potential. “I am very encouraged by the recent quality I am seeing in the elk hunts in Nevada. Due to great management practices by the Nevada Division of Wildlife, the elk herds are doing great,” Greg Krogh, owner of Mogollon Rim Outfitters, said. Krogh speculates that the elk herds are increasing across the state since the Nevada Division of Wildlife has increased the numbers of elk tags issued. Although the state’s elk population is doing well, overall some resident hunters are concerned about the reduction of its trophy potential. “Issuing more tags has upset some because it has lowered the top end or older age-class of bulls,” Krogh said.
According to the Nevada Division of Wildlife, approximately 75 percent of the state’s elk population inhabits the eastern region of the state. Krogh believes that even though some of the older bulls have been eliminated, there are still some big bulls to be found. Traditionally, units 111-115, 221-22 and 231 in the east-central region of the state have been the hottest areas for trophy bulls. On average, 65 percent of the overall harvests in these units are bulls with six or more points. These units should produce a few monster bulls again this fall.
The state’s hunt units are large and the do-it-yourself hunter will need to spend ample time scouting to understand the road systems and to pin-point elk herds and their movement patterns.
According to a recent report published by the New Mexico Game and Fish Department (NMGFD), there are somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 elk in the state. Over 50 percent of the total elk population occurs in two herds: Chama/San Antonio herd in the northern region and the Greater Gila herd in the southwestern region. Other medium-sized herds are spread around the state and include: Mt. Taylor, Jemez Mountains, Datil, Sacramento and Ruidoso.
The Chama/San Antonio herd in the northern region holds approximately 20,000 animals, which is about 30 percent of the state’s total elk population. The bulk of the hunting opportunities found in the northern region occur on the Carson National Forest. The Carson NF comprises 1.5 million acres and ranges in elevation from 6,000 feet to 13,000 feet at Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest point.
Historically, the southwest region, in and around the Gila NF has been New Mexico’s most famed elk hunting hotspot, even though it holds less elk than the northern region. According to Jody Tapia, owner of Bucks-n-Bulls Outfitters, the Gila is the best location for a trophy bull. “The New Mexico elk herds seem to be stable due to the great herd controls through the Game and Fish Department; there are consistently some units better than others, such as 16D, 16A and 15,” Tapia said. Tapia believes that GMUs 15, 16A and 16D are three of the best in the state because of the limited number of tags issued and their sheer size. Additionally, Tapia suggests that a couple of sleeper units, 16E and 17 have produced a few big bulls over the last few years, and should do so again this fall.
One important change this year is the extension of legal shooting hours, which now extend 30 minutes after sunset. This allowance will enhance elk hunter’s opportunities this fall.
Last fall, 40,000 elk hunters hunted elk in Utah. According to Anis Aoude, big game coordinator, the statewide elk population objective is 68,825 elk. Currently, Utah’s elk population is just over 72,000 animals. With an elk population over the objective, “Elk are doing well across the state,” Aoude said.
According to Aoude, most elk hunting opportunities in the state are spike- only hunts. The best spike-only areas are the Wasatch and the Manti units in central Utah. As expected, hunter success varies with hunt type, hunt unit and season. Reported hunt successes around the state range from 8 percent during the general archery season to close to 90 percent for the limited-entry muzzleloader and rifle seasons.
These numbers speak volumes about the quality of the limited-entry tags. “No matter which elk unit you hunt, there’s a good chance you’ll have a great experience,” said Aoude. On the other hand, obtaining a tag is a different story.
“Nobody in my family has been successful at drawing a limited area tag,” said resident hunter Reed Bodell. Bodell and his brother Bryon have turned to the less-successful general archery hunts, and to surrounding states because of their poor luck in the limited-entry draw. For those that were lucky enough to draw, several areas will stand out this fall: Plateau, Boulder/Kaiparowitz, Monroe, Beaver, Fillmore/Pavant, San Juan and the roadless areas in the Book Cliffs.
Last fall elk hunters harvested 25,602 elk, which was a 10-year high. That total was 2,500 more than 2009, and was a 22 percent increase from 2008. Wyoming Game and Fish Information Specialist Al Langston, reports that elk hunters will fare well this fall, too.
Habitat conditions vary across the state, and some elk populations are doing better than others. “In general, herds in most of Wyoming are above population objective,” Langston said. According to Langston, the Game and Fish Department is concerned with elk populations in the northwest portion of the state. The concern? Wolves! Randy George, a local guide, fears that wolves are an immediate threat to elk populations in the state. “The wolves have had a huge impact on the elk population,” George said.
Experts agree that the lucky recipients of limited-quota tags in the area west of Wheatland, the Bighorn Mountains and the Rock Springs area will have an exceptional hunt opportunity. As always, the Bridger Teton and Medicine Bow national forests are always capable of producing trophy bulls as well. George, who splits his time between two outfitters, Paint Rock Adventures during the early archery season, and Oldwest Adventures in the rifle season, believes that the best trophy areas that the state has to offer are around the Laramie Peak region and portions of the Bighorn Mountains.
Just five years ago, Wyoming introduced a preference point system for non-residents. Preference points enhance the applicant’s chance of drawing a limited-quota hunt. Although some draw hunts are still around 20 percent draw odds, some areas’ draw odds increase by as much as 80 percent with the addition of one preference point. Langston encourages non-resident hunters who dream of hunting the state start by purchasing preference points.