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High-Country Elk Hunting in Fall

High-Country Elk Hunting in Fall
Taking a bull like this one is what we all dream about. (Photo by John E. Phillips)

In 2017, the elk herd in Montana is close to an all-time high. Although Wyoming had a tough winter, there are several hunting locations that should offer a great chance a success. Some have reason to think Idaho is a top state right now for elk. Wildlife biologist Tom Toman is the director of science and planning for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and studies elk populations across the U.S. He offered some thoughts regarding high-country elk hunting prospects.

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"Elk in Montana are in pretty darn good shape," Toman reported. "Elk are tough and usually can survive better in tough winter conditions than other animals. The RMEF feels the Montana elk population may be close to an all-time high and expects many 2017 elk hunters to take trophy bulls."

Toman named the 3.35 million-acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest as having very good elk habitat. Mountain pine beetles have killed many trees there. However, once those trees have been cut and cleared, more sunlight has reached the forest floor, providing more forage for elk. Toman also mentioned that well-managed elk herds are in the Helena and the Flathead national forests.

"The RMEF just donated close to a quarter of a million dollars to Montana for a project to improve elk habitat," Toman reported. This money will be used for habitat thinning, forest burning and water projects for the elk, he noted.

Toman next offered some insight regarding Wyoming's elk populations and prospects for hunters. The elk herds are in good shape, although they experienced a tougher winter than Montana and lost some elk, he noted.

"I was born and raised in Wyoming, and my favorite place to hunt is the Dubois area in northwestern Wyoming in the Shoshone National Forest," Toman noted. "I hunt around Jackson and Pinedale in the Bridger-Teton National Forest — good regions for taking elk in the early season." 

Regarding Idaho, Toman noted: "Idaho homes some good elk hunting, including the Payette and the Boise forests. But the state has an increased number of bears and wolves. The RMEF believes that the wolf populations in all the Western states need to have more balanced management systems that the states set up." 

Wildlife biologist Craig White, Idaho's statewide deer and elk program coordinator, said Idaho's three-year average for elk harvest is the highest it has been in the last 25 years. White recommended that hunters participate in the draw for the controlled areas with high harvests for a big bull.

"Fewer people hunt there. The state's management philosophy in these areas is to have a higher number of bulls to cows than elsewhere, and the hunts are held at times when hunters' success ratios should be higher," White noted. "Some regions also hold antlerless elk harvests for meat with a 70- to 80-percent success rate." 

White considers Idaho as one of the best elk states, due in part to over the counter elk tags. Idaho's 99 management units are broken down into game management units for elk hunting. 

"The McCall Elk Zone and Units 23 and 24 in west/central Idaho offer good elk hunting," White reported. "Another productive zone is the Pioneer Zone, Units 36A, 49 and 50, that's controlled hunts for rifle hunters. This last winter was a humdinger, with statewide Idaho's elk calf survival at only about 50 percent, but with a 96 percent survival rate of elk cows."


White reported that Idaho had its highest wolf population in 2010 and that today the wolf population is better controlled.

In some regions, Idaho is trying to lower elk numbers by giving hunters more opportunities.

"Idaho has had growth in its elk herd, resulting in good sized 2- to 4-year-old calves and bulls that survived the winter," he noted.

Dieter Kaboth, an elk calling champion from Pierce, Idaho, names one of the best areas for elk as the west Yellowstone area along the Idaho and Montana border.

"You can find elk — even trophy elk there — but be very aware of grizzly bears," he advised. "The Bitterroot National Forest homes a good number of elk, but at the Clearwater National Forest, the elk have been hit pretty hard by wolves." 

Kaboth offered a few tips to people coming from out of state to take Idaho elk. Plan to hunt the northeast facing slopes in the early season, he advised. These locations receive less sun exposure, he noted. They have good grass, and the elk can put on fat for winter. The southern slopes may have their grass burn up during hot weather, and the elk won't get as many nutrients there.

Hunt the winter months for elk on the south facing slopes, which will be warmer, and the snow not usually as deep, Kaboth noted.

John Hayes, the owner of the Hayes/Dumont Taxidermy Studio in Libby, Mont., names the Belt Mountains, the Little Belt Mountains, the Missouri Breaks and the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area as places where hunters have taken nice bull elk and brought them to his taxidermy shop.

"To be honest, we've seen some really nice elk taken from all across the state of Montana," Hayes explained. "If someone just wants to take any elk, I suggest our area, with its 80 percent public land hunting that has more access and elk."

The Kootenai and the Lolo national forests in Region I don't home numbers of elk, but by hunting hard and walking far, you may have the opportunity to take a nice bull. The Big Hole Valley has plenty of elk, including some big elk. However, there, you'll have to hunt private lands or get permission to cross private lands to reach the public lands.

"Some of the biggest elk our taxidermy studio took in last year came from the Missouri Breaks, and the permits to hunt elk there go through the lottery," Hayes said. "These tags are very hard to draw. Our taxidermy shop sees many of the same elk hunters bringing in nice elk bulls every year. These guys know how to hunt hard on public lands in areas where other hunters won't hike to and have identified the places where elk hang out," he continued.

"Something else that impacts elk hunter success is to practice shoot at various distances throughout the year. You don't want to blow the shot you may get on a really big bull because you or your gun aren't shooting accurately. An elk hunt usually comes down to one shot," he noted.

Dustin Child, with Trophy Mountain Outfitters, primarily hunts western Wyoming in the Gros Ventre Wilderness backcountry. "I think hunting wilderness areas is a much more traditional way of hunting elk than hunting the public access areas. Our hunters come as much for the backcountry experience as anything," he noted.

"I also have a traditional camp that's not in the wilderness in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Our outfitting group has learned that knowing the history of a place will help us to consistently find elk every year," Child said. "We search for places where elk feed at night and drainages where elk stay and pinpoint the routes they travel each year. One of the advantages I have is that I grew up in this region and started hunting here as a kid."

In Child's public land hunting camp, many of the hunters do well during opening week when the elk are bugling and still in the rut, making them easier to locate and to call. However, Child mentioned those type of honey holes away from other hunters are becoming fewer. "Today we may hunt closer to a trail head than we once did," he noted. "Sometimes we find good bulls in places other hunters have walked past to get farther into the back country."

Child reported that Wyoming has an exploding population of elk on its eastern side. But on the western side, elk numbers seem to be down somewhat. Wyoming's southwestern section homes very good elk hunting, he advised.

"I'll also name the Kemmerer and the Evanston areas for elk," Child said.

Taking a bull like this one is what we all dream about. (Photo by John E. Phillips)

Lynn Madsen with Yellowstone Outfitters, says: "I have an elk camp on the southeastern side of Yellowstone National Park in the Teton wilderness, about an hour's ride on horseback.  Wyoming has good elk hunting, primarily due to our 22 feeding grounds where hay is put out for the elk and keeps elk alive through the winter months. When the snow gets 2 or 3 feet deep, elk can't get down to that food."

Madsen named predation from wolves and grizzly bears as hurting the elk herd. "Since we've had wolves, I've seen a decline in our elk and moose populations," Madsen noted.  "Although Wyoming had a wolf season for several years, then wolf hunting was stopped. But this year the state will hold a wolf season."

Many parts of Wyoming have very good elk hunting with the western section of Wyoming homing good elk hunting with plenty of wilderness and public hunting areas.   

Madsen noted: "I personally think the designation of a good elk area is more dependent on the hunter's physical condition than the number of elk there." A hunter in good shape who can hike in the mountains can get into deeper wilderness areas, Madsen explained.

"I hunt the Teton Wilderness in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. A nonresident must have a guide with him to hunt there. Most guides and outfitters use horses and pack strings to get into the wilderness areas quicker than walking. A guide, too, will understand how to deal with bears and the food storage regulations you must observe." 

Madsen reported that his outfitting group bags 300-plus-inch elk. The group takes eight hunters at a time during rifle season and usually holds an archery hunt before rifle season. "I'd say that about 90 percent of our hunters have opportunities to take elk," Madsen added.

Ian Tator, Wyoming's statewide terrestrial habitat manager,  reported:  "The 2016 elk season was very good and almost broke a state record for elk harvest. The antler growth and the cow harvest were good last year."

The weather didn't appear to affect the elk herd that much, specifically in western Wyoming, Tator noted, so officials don't anticipate any change in hunting for elk there.

"Luckily our elk calves faired pretty well, and all the elk herds are in very good shape going into the 2017 season," Tator added.

"Wyoming has plenty of opportunity for hunters to take elk," the habitat manager continued. "But if you want to take a bull or a cow, hunt the Sierra Madre Mountains in the Medicine Bow National Forest. Check out western Wyoming in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. At the south end of that forest, generally known as the Bridger area, there's plenty of bowhunting for good elk there." 

We've looked at several areas that are good elk hunting options. Now it's time to plan your hunt at one of these spots or another high-country destination

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