That magic time of year is here again. Golden leaves flutter brightly in aspen patches as they prepare to litter the forest floor. Morning frost has arrived in the high country and soon screaming elk bugles will announce nature’s urge to procreate. Experienced hunters’ plans are complete, and time is near for their annual migration into Rocky Mountain ramparts to stalk one of America’s most revered game animals.
Game officials in each Rocky Mountain state are optimistic about this elk hunting season.
Because tag applications must be submitted far in advance and weather plays such a significant role in elk and deer hunt success, luck can impact outcomes. Prime elk country seldom changes significantly unless nature interferes. Disease, fires, extreme winters or forage issues can impact elk range quickly. Barring any such natural impacts, following are some prime elk habitat throughout the Rockies.
Arizona is a legendary sanctuary for trophy elk. Some 30,000 to 35,000 elk reside throughout the state, most in high elevations from 7,000 to 10,000 feet amongst cool conifer, spruce and fir forests until snow forces them down.
Most range north and south along the Mogollon Rim. Amber Munig, big game management supervisor, confirms that elk herds have remained stable over the past few years.
Find the best day and time to hunt elk in your zip code
Arizona manages Units 1, 9, 10 and 29 to produce mature bulls. There are plenty of trophy animals throughout the state as well. Kaibab National Forest and the Big Boquillas Ranch annually yield some monster bulls. If you draw a coveted Unit 10 tag, a Ranch permit might be a good move.Region 2, Unit 7 continues to recover from population reduction efforts according to Tim McCall. He said although drought conditions impacted antler growth and calf survival last year, a good snowpack should lead to an improved 2019 hunt. In Region 1, Rick Langley confirmed this information. Low success in 2018 should yield more bulls carrying big racks because of the snowpack.
According to Andy Holland, Colorado big game coordinator, Colorado’s elk population remains stable at around 286,000 animals. In most areas, bull-cow and cow-calf ratios remain favorable with one exception. The southern tier from the Uncomphagre Plateau to Durango to Alamosa has seen low cow-calf ratios for some time. Elk range from low shrub/brush country to cloud-shrouded alpine parks. If, and when, heavy snows arrive, elk will begin to migrate to lower-elevation winter grounds, making them more vulnerable to hunters.
Because Colorado elk are managed for hunter success, the number of trophy animals harvested each year is relatively low. As usual, the northwestern herds—Bears Ear and White River, ranging from I-70 north to Wyoming border— have the largest concentrations of elk. For trophy hunters with enough draw points to access units 2, 10, 40 or 201, which are managed for older bulls, will find plenty of long-tined, heavily antlered animals.
Elk numbers are favorable in most units near the Grand Mesa, around Middle Park, the Collegiate Peaks and Gunnison Valley. Hardy hunters usually find success in rugged units 54 and 55 as well as 66 and 67 near Gunnison. Units 48, 49, 57 and 59 in the Collegiate Peaks area produce well. Hunters also have a better chance to find quality bulls in limited-draw units and units around Rocky Mountain National Park.
Idaho is rapidly becoming an elk hunting mecca following years of superb hunting success. Some 120,000 elk roam from low, sagebrush flats to isolated mountain parks. Idaho also offers lots of access. Daryl Meints, Idaho’s Deer and Elk Coordinator, said depending upon how long winter lasts, elk should survive well. He currently expects another excellent harvest if winter doesn’t turn severe and fires don’t interfere. Last year, 22,325 elk were taken with 18.2 percent general-hunt and 42 percent controlled-hunt success rates.
Click to subscribe to Game & Fish Magazine
Almost half of the state is at, or well above, population-management objectives. Trophy bulls are more likely be found in controlled-hunt units. In the recent past, south central and southwest units have produced major trophy bulls. Wilderness areas and fringe areas of north and central Idaho offer lower hunter participation and Units 40 and 46 are good areas.
Bowhunters will likely have greater success hunting zones that only offer controlled, any-method-of-harvest hunting and over-populated units or some of the controlled, archery-only hunting units.
John Vore, game management bureau chief, said elk problems in his state are few. There are limited predator issues in some western Montana areas. Overpopulation in areas where private property hinders elk harvest is the biggest problem. Montana uses “shoulder seasons” for antlerless elk, which are great if you can get private access.
Shawn Stewart, wildlife biologist for the Beartooths in region 5, said his region has very limited opportunities for private access during the general season, but the shoulder seasons create good hunter success.
Southwest region 3 has Montana’s largest elk population and harvest. More than half of that region is at, or above, population management objectives. Elk prosper in the rugged, mountainous timber country and scattered open parks. History has shown success in the Gravelly, Pioneer, Tendoy and Tobacco Root mountains there.
Hunters are more likely to encounter trophy bulls in the Missouri Breaks area. Big bulls flourish amongst the ponderosa and scrub brush of the rugged, broken, prairie terrain. This is largely a bull permit area, but if you can secure a tag for hunting districts 410, 417, 621, 622, 631 or 632, you could encounter a bull of a lifetime.
Nevada seems to grow plenty of bulls sporting big racks. Nevada delivers big bulls by managing their herds to reach older age, but also to produce hunter success as well. Cody McKee, Big Game Staff Biologist, said there may be a slight decrease in bull licenses to increase the ratio of older bulls. There may also be a larger decrease in cow licenses also.
Quality bulls reside throughout the state. McKee thinks east and northeast Nevada, which nurtures about 60 percent of Nevada’s small herd, are the prime areas for elk. He said Units 111 to 115 in the Shell Creek and Snake ranges not only yield some big bulls, but also have good hunt success rates as well. Over the years, a large portion of the harvest sported 6-point racks.
The eastern portion of Elko County always produces many 6-point or larger bulls. High success rates on elk along with several monster bulls are likely to be found along the Utah border in unit 091.
Trophy bulls are found throughout New Mexico. New Mexico elk program manager, James Pittman, said New Mexico’s elk program is in great shape with a stable population and good cow-calf and bull-cow ratios. However, the Mt. Taylor herd in GMU 9 has experienced difficulty in recent years. Nearly 37,000 hunters purchase licenses each year. Pittman recommends hunters study reports on the website to calculate draw odds prior to entering the draw.
He said in New Mexico, moisture conditions impact forage quality, nutrition and fire hazard. Fires create excellent new-forage growth but cause herd migration. Lots of snow should find the herds in good condition this spring so the fall hunt will depend on spring and monsoon rains. New Mexico has also opened some previously unhunted public land in units 14, 19, 42, 47, and 59.
Pittman recommends GMU 34 and 36 as top elk prospects. Bull-cow ratios there are quite high. Trophy potential is probably highest in the Greater Gila Herd (GMUs 15 and 16A-E), Valles Caldera (GMU 6B) and the Valle Vidal (GMU 55). GMUs 16B/22 includes the steep mountains and thick timber of the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas. Valles Caldera and Valle Vidal are largely open meadow, thick timber ridges, and burned areas.
Utah has become a trophy elk destination par excellence with a high percentage of quality bulls amongst their stable 80,000 statewide population. The current world record, a 478 5/8 bull, was harvested there in 2008. A spate of wild fires in central and southern Utah combined with good precipitation this winter will likely create quality forage and increased antler growth. Mike Wardle, Utah’s private lands/public wildlife coordinator, said, overall, Utah’s elk herds are in good condition.
Limited-entry units offer the best opportunity for a success. The draw for limited-entry tags has terminated for 2019, but there are often high-quality hunt unit licenses available over the counter as well as private-land cow elk permits, which go on sale beginning in July. If you’d like to hunt cow elk, 44 percent of the private-lands-only permit holders in 2018 ended up harvesting an elk. These licenses are only good in specified units and require landowner permission to hunt.
In 2018, nearly 70,000 hunters harvested more than 16,000 animals. Wardle also said the Central Mountains Manti Unit and Wasatch Mountains units will have the most elk though limited-entry units usually produce the largest bulls. Elk are managed by four age groups to ensure quality. Units with the older bulls typically are more difficult to draw. Plateau, Boulder/Kaiparowits and San Juan unit bulls averaged over 8 years old.
Wyoming’s 105,000 elk are in good shape with 28 of their 33 herds at, or above, management objectives. Nearly 22,000 elk were harvested in 2018. Sara DiRienzo, Wyoming’s public outreach specialist, said the 2019 season should be good statewide if weather cooperates.
DiRienzo recommends the Sierra Madres and Laramie ranges, areas 21 and 5 through 7 where there are lots of elk and some trophy animals as well. Of course, backcountry guided hunts or difficult-to-draw, limited-quota hunts and private land access really increase chances of success, especially for trophy bulls. Big bulls roam throughout the back country and a world-record bull was harvested near Dubois by a crossbow hunter in 2014. Look to the Beartooth Mountains, Bridger-Teton and Shoshone National Forests for trophy bulls.