For many big game hunters, elk hunting is the most exciting opportunity to be found. And the Northwest offers a good number of public hunting options for this celebrated species.
By Troy Rodakowski
Let’s take a look at some of the top hunting opportunities for outdoorsmen in Oregon and Washington and what hunters can expect this season.
Many elk in the central part of the state are found on private lands, but there are also good-sized herds on public forest lands and private timber holdings. The same holds true for the desert southeast. No matter where you choose to hunt this fall, I find no reason not to be optimistic.
All things considered, elk are doing well throughout this region. Many herds are continuing to expand their range, especially onto private properties. Maupin-Biggs, Steens, Paulina, Fort Rock, Silver Lake and the Klamath basin all hold decent-sized herds.
Some locations, of course, have quite higher densities. Private lands around Maupin, Grass Valley, Black Butte, Sisters, Bend, La Pine and Chemult have good herds of elk. Access here is primarily through private lands.
Many of the elk spend time in small tracts of timber, agricultural lands, ranches and golf courses. Maupin-Biggs and Paulina head up the list for highest success rates in this region. Harvest success for various units has remained at or near 10 percent.
The Ochoco, Grizzly, Silvies, Murders Creek, Beulah, Northside, Malheur River and Maury Mountains continue to produce some excellent elk numbers as well. Mountainous terrain in the Ochoco, John Day and Grizzly units hold some very nice animals, especially in travel management and road closure locations.
Many of the elk here hover on and near private lands following pressure from early season hunters. Good groups can still be found above 4,000 feet in elevation from October through December on national forest and BLM holdings. These places provide some of the best opportunities for hunters.
Elk here are also now becoming problematic on private land, so obtaining permission with farmers or ranchers here can be an excellent idea. Controlled hunting provides increased odds to harvest an elk in these parts, and it’s easy to see when you look at harvest data consistently pointing to high success rates.
Randy Lewis, Assistant ODFW biologist in Bend, Ore., adds: “Paulina, East Fort Rock and Wagontire unit bull ratios are down slightly this year. Relative to the number of elk, branch-antlered bull opportunity will be decent in the Paulina and East Fort Rock units. Herds are at relatively low densities and cover a lot of country, so hunter success is typically low.”
Longtime eastern Oregon rancher Bill Sanowski said that if it weren’t for the wildlife on their 5,200 acres of deeded land they could have run an additional 100 head of cattle.
“We sold the hunts to recoup some of the losses, but it just wasn’t close to what we could have made,” noted Sanowski.
To help alleviate some of these problems the ODFW is now offering hunters the opportunity to apply for several controlled private land hunts throughout the state.
However, they would like to remind hunters applying for these tags to make sure they have private access and an area to hunt prior to applying. These hunts will not only control the herds but push animals back onto the National Forest / BLM and other public lands.
Big bulls roam the high reaches of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Eagle Cap Wilderness and the Snake River Divide. Top hunts are found here and oftentimes take several years to draw a desired permit. However, there are several archery and rifle permits up for grabs over the counter for hunters to take advantage of. Sled Springs, Imnaha, Pine Creek, Minam and Snake River are some top choices.
With the seclusion of the high country, not to mention over 2 million accessible acres in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and 300,000-plus acres in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, hunters have many options to choose from.
The steep country of Hells Canyon provides sanctuary to some very large bull elk. Hunters here find good success through second season spike only permits in the Sled Springs and neighboring units. With seemingly endless amounts of USFS, BLM and Wilderness access hunters have many options.
Additionally, there are multitudes of trailheads and more than 500 miles of navigable trails in Eagle Cap to access. There are also several travel management plans in effect throughout Wallowa County that restrict the use of motorized vehicles which only helps the hunting throughout the region.
One does not have to get far off the road or away from a trailhead to find success here. However, backcountry trips on foot or by horse will produce the best results for trophy Rocky Mountain elk, deer, bears and cougars. There are also good numbers of turkeys, grouse and mountain quail to be had.
Hunters may also encounter wolves in these remote locations and should be aware that packs are expanding their territory here.
Isolated locations in Western Oregon near water or swampy areas that have good forage will be great places for animals to seek refuge. Larger bulls will many times seek solitude in locations where they can rest and recover after the rut. Carefully, glassing underbrush in thick coniferous canopies on steep hillsides or draws can reveal bedded elk.
District ODFW biologist Chris Yee, in Springfield, reported that there are increasing numbers of elk on private lands throughout the Cascades and Coast Range. He has found himself issuing more damage permits over the last several years.
From the Santiam in the north to the Evans Creek and Rogue in the south there are numerous areas to look for elk. Asking loggers, forest service employees or local ODFW biologist are great ways to obtain some decent pointers for opening day. Pre-season scouting or talking to hunters that have been hunting the Cascades for deer in the previous weeks can also be helpful.
The Blue Mountains of Washington State offer a vast expanse of high plateau dissected by deep draws and canyons carved by numerous creeks and rivers. The state manages a herd with populations ranging from 5,000 to 6,000. Following aerial surveys this past spring, Brock Hoenes, WDFW elk specialist, was concerned about overwinter calf survival in the area.
“This area holds some of our biggest bulls, but it is difficult to draw for most hunters unless they are patient enough to accrue preference points,” noted Hoenes. Although the winter was tough throughout the Blues elk numbers remain at or near management objectives and have been at or above objectives since 2009.
Although most general harvests here are restricted to “spike only,” this region produces some very large bulls, with antlerless harvest permits issued mainly near agricultural locations. Extreme weather events that affect the Blue Mountain elk herd are rare but have recently affected the population dynamics.
Periodically, high numbers of elk have moved into the western portions of this zone, and the WDFW has issued permits to hunt here based on herd movements. In the past, branch-antlered bull hunters concentrated on public lands in unit area 1010.The shift has been to obtain permission on private lands for these particular tag holders.
That being said, if you can find some good public access, hunting pressure will likely be reduced and more evenly distributed throughout GMU 172. Additionally, WDFW elk areas 1008 and 1009 were established to help evenly distribute hunter pressures from the western portion of the GMU and better distribute pressures in the Wenaha–Tucannon Wilderness.
North Cascade/St. Helens tags are difficult to draw but also offer some of the best opportunities for western Washington hunters. This region also offers the highest bull to cow ratio following the harsh winter of 2016-17, according to the WDFW elk surveys conducted in March and April of 2017.
“It is safe to say that the winter of 2016-17 was more severe than normal and had quite an effect on our elk herds,” noted Eric Holman, WDFW biologist. Post-hunt ratios for this area remain near a 12-20 bull-to-100 cow ratio.
Elk numbers remain near 1,200, which is close to the management objective for this area. High elk pressure was found in the Skagit River Valley last winter, with elk retreating from the harsh winter storms to lower elevations, where there was some conflict with agricultural producers. Although up to this point biologists had never documented a substantial winter effect on survival here it has greatly influenced the distribution of this herd as of late. Hunters in 2017 may want to focus some of their efforts in the Skagit River Valley, particularly where they can obtain permission to hunt private lands.
The department discovered the presence of Treponeme-associated hoof disease (TAHD) in 2016. The WDFW is currently investigating the effects of TAHD throughout the region and the Mt. St. Helens elk herd as well.
WDFW and volunteers associated with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation conducted the annual elk mortality survey on the Mudflow Unit of the Mt. St. Helens Wildlife Area during the final week in April. This year’s count was 25 elk mortalities. In comparison, 2015 and 2016 recorded 13 and 17 documented mortalities, respectively.
WDFW staff conducted aerial surveys in the indexed area of the Mt. St. Helens elk herd area during the third week in March. The survey encompasses elk in portions of Game Management Units 520 (Winston), 522 (Loo-Wit), 524 (Margaret), 550 (Coweeman) and 556 (Toutle). As expected due to the severity and persistence of the 2016-17 winter, populations were down. Specifically, the survey results showed an approximate 35-percent reduction in the elk population when compared to the most recent two years.
Accordingly, the WDFW has reduced antlerless elk hunting opportunities for the fall of 2017, which hunters will see reflected as fewer cow tags available in the St. Helens GMUs. However, the news is not all bad. Bull -to-cow ratios remain high in the St. Helens GMUs, ranging from 19 bulls per 100 cows in the Coweeman Unit to 84 bulls per 100 cows in the lightly hunted Loo-Wit.
Colockum & Yakima elk herd maintains an average of nearly 4,500 elk, with post hunt populations of 12-20 bulls per 100 cows. This area is known to be the best for elk in Washington for many years, however hunter densities in this region can be quite high. District 8 has been regarded as one of the best for quality elk during the last couple of seasons.
Additionally, hunters here have been able to harvest antlerless animals for the past few seasons, which almost doubled between 2013 and 2015. However, the WDFW is looking at some tag reductions for the area following the harsh winter.
General season harvests are restricted to spike only by the department, with opportunities through the annual drawing to obtain a branch antler permit in the area. Hunters looking to fill their freezer with meat during the general season and antlerless hunts should keep this region in mind for 2017-2018.
Winter conditions here were fairly severe, and following this last season the elk herd will likely see some tag reductions. However, the herd does remain at or near management objectives. During deep snow years, south slopes open up with sun and warmer micro climates near the Columbia River pools. With logging over the last 10 years, habitat has greatly improved for this herd.
Following recent wildfires, high- quality forage has increased for these elk. And the unit provides some good opportunities for bulls scoring over 350 B&C. Success is greatly determined on weather and migratory patterns here.
“Early season archery, general Eastern Washington and controlled tags are some of the best bets for 2017,” noted Hoenes.
Archery hunters seem to have found increased success throughout the state over the last several years. General season rifle hunters are finding it a bit more difficult once their seasons begin in October. It is important that hunters research the areas in which they plan to hunt, especially during the general seasons.