Here's a state-by-state preview of how Rocky Mountain elk hunting is shaping up this season.
By Roger Wheaton
As fall approaches each year, America's serious elk hunters prepare to migrate to the Rockies, where elk abound.
The first step in their plan probably should begin with research, including visiting wildlife department websites and reviewing additional print and online resources. Thorough research will help hunters make wise decisions on where and when to hunt.
Following are some areas in each of the Rocky Mountain states that offer a great shot at filling your tag this season.
Bull elk (Shutterstock image)
Arizona's reputation as a top trophy elk destination is well-deserved. Monster bulls roam across the northern tier of the state, preferring their high summer range in pine forests until heavy snows finally force them down to scrub lowlands. Mature bulls will begin to respond to rut stimulation around early September.
Amber Munig, big game management supervisor, foresees little change from previous years' successful hunts. Other than units where elk are undesirable, invaluable elk licenses are managed by draw. For increased trophy bull potential, Munig recommends units 1, 9, 10, and 23, which are specifically managed to yield older, mature bulls.
The Kaibab National Forest southeast of 10 usually delivers trophy bulls also. Units 15A and 18A provide limited opportunity for monster bulls. If you are lucky enough to draw a Unit 10 tag, you might consider trying to obtain a Diamond A ranch access permit. Ranch permit sales will begin in July (huntbigboranch.com). Regardless, there will be plenty of large bulls throughout all Arizona main elk units.
Colorado's record as the top elk destination remains unchallenged, with a population approaching 280,000. Colorado is not well-known for hat-rack bulls, but high numbers provide more opportunities.
Hunters almost outnumber elk, with over 200,000 blaze orange jackets stalking alpine heights. Many Game Management Units have an estimated bull:cow ratio exceeding 40 percent. 2016 elk harvest figures show a slightly lower success rate than in previous years. Big game manager Andy Holland noted harvest and success numbers declined last year because fewer licenses were sold and hot, dry weather kept elk high. An 18 percent success rate harvested about 40,000 elk.
A brutal winter hit parts of western and northwestern Colorado this year. Officials expect above average mortality in some areas. Along the Arkansas Valley, winter has been fairly mild. Biologist Jamin Grigg thinks elk in the Collegiate Peaks region will winter well. Last year's below average hunt left an excess of nice bulls for 2017.Grigg said GMUs 48, 49, 57, and 59 may be the best.
Heavy snow in the Gunnison Valley drove game down to wintering grounds along highway 50. Area wildlife manager J. Wenum expects elk to survive well, though. Elk abound throughout the Gunnison Valley. Hardy hunters should do well in rugged GMUs 54 and 55, but Wenum expects hunters may do better this year in GMUs 66 and 67.
Farther south, wildlife public information officer Joe Lewandowski said winter has been relatively mild. 2016's average hunt appears to be a model for 2017. Lewandowksi recommends GMUs 65, 74, 551, 681, and the west sides of 80 and 81, which have historically been better producers for hunters who infiltrate a couple miles or more from roads.
Brad Petch, senior wildlife biologist, told me the Yampa Valley and north and northwest to state boundaries have been hammered by winter, causing some elk mortality. Winter weather has not impacted the Meeker area and eastern units of the northwest region. Petch believes the low 2016 elk harvest has left a lot of bigger bulls running around heralding what could be a great hunt this fall. He said the area south of I-70 from Vail Valley to Roaring Fork area is below objective. Northwest trophy management units 2, 10, 40, and 210, along with 2016 holdover bulls, could produce a great 2017 hunt.
The Front Range experienced an average to above average harvest, according to senior wildlife biologist Janet George. South Park and Red Feathers elk are prospering. Both areas hold big bulls, with South Park usually hosting fewer hunters with a little higher success rate.
Photo courtesy of the Arizona Game and Fish Department
Idaho's harvest record seems to improve a little each year. Officials estimate a near record success rate again last season, with about 24,000 elk harvested. Success rate statistics will likely reflect around 17 percent for over-the-counter hunts and 39 percent for controlled hunts. Predator control measures continue to yield positive results.
This winter has been difficult, especially in the south. Deer and elk coordinator Craig White said winter has been less severe up north. Survival rates remain unknown this early, but elk calf mortality figures are a little higher than recently, while adults appear to be doing OK.
Several recent mild winters have produced an increased number of elk. This winter will likely not impact the 2017 season, although calf mortality means fewer adults in the future.
Game manager Steve Nadeau told me last year that central and eastern Idaho elk numbers may be the best. Population growth continues across the state. Controlled hunts produce the highest success, and major trophies are being taken in south-central and southwest areas. He also said really big bulls were coming out of Owyhee Canyonlands as well as the Lolo Zone. White said bowhunters should do well in several of Idaho's over-the-counter elk zones that are over management objectives.
John Vore, big game management bureau chief, told me that 41 hunt districts are over objective. He said last season was poor, as mild weather kept the elk up high. And crusty snow, which didn't affect the elk but hindered hunters, fell when shoulder seasons opened. Region 4 wildlife manager Graham Taylor told me the elk are "bursting at the seams" in his area, but winter moves elk onto private property.
Region 1 wildlife manager Neil Anderson told me that this has been a tough winter. Calf survival is unknown yet, but impact is likely. The slightly less than average 2016 hunt was hindered by hot, dry conditions.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness also has low calf recruitment and bull/cow ratios, but overall, herds are average. Bowhunters have had great success there. He thinks they have accounted for about 25 percent of the state bull harvest.
Region 3 in the west and southwest has always been the big elk producer in Montana. Information Bureau Chief Greg Lemon tells me that lack of snow hurt the 2016 harvest. That, however, should bode well for carry-over elk and larger bulls. This year's mild winter means good calf recruitment. Hunters should find plenty of elk in the Tendoy, Pioneer, Gravelly and Tobacco Root Mountains.
For a state managing a small herd of elk, Nevada is a giant in turning out trophy animals. In 2013, 73 percent of the bull harvest carried 6 points or better. More than 60 percent of this modest-sized herd resides in eastern and northeastern Nevada; however, this small herd also makes it difficult to draw a tag, particularly for non-residents. The 2015 hunt success rates were 56 percent (resident) and 77 percent (non-resident) with a significant majority of big bulls.
Staff biologist Cody McKee also told me that the 2016 harvest was down slightly from 2015. According to him, post-hunt surveys show plenty of holdover bulls. Management principles ensure potential for trophy animals in all units.
McKee highlights 091, 111, 115, 161-164, 221-223, and 231. He noted 062, 064, 066-068, and 076, 077, and 079 also produce several 6-pointers each year. But their antlers carry a little less mass. These units should also be good for bowhunters, who tend to harvest more quality animals in all units.
The biologist expects 2017 to be another banner year for elk hunters. Liberal antlerless and conservative antlered elk harvest regulations contribute to herd growth within objectives. Favorable moisture conditions this winter should further improve herd growth. As a result, there may be some increase in available elk tags this fall. It will likely take some time to draw a coveted tag here.
New Mexico has earned its reputation as a prime elk hunting destination. Elk program coordinator James Pitman told me despite not having all hunt data in, 2016 was another great season with high hunter success rates. Game and Fish personnel received reports of some great bulls being harvested.
A couple of late winter elk biological surveys produced evidence that the elk are wintering well and are in excellent condition. Fall survey flights located across the state indicate elk populations in excellent shape which should result in another great elk season in 2017.
Southcentral herds continue to have some of the highest bull to cow ratios in the state. This area includes GMUs 36 and 34. Pitman advised if a hunter's goal is to get in on as many different bulls as possible, the south-central herds are worth a look. GMUs 15 and 16A-E have been great for big bulls and now 12 is becoming popular for wall-hangers also.
The Valle Vidal/Greenwood hunts, once-in-a-lifetime draw hunts in GMU 55A, also continue to be favorites with great potential for harvesting really big elk. Last year the Valles Caldera hunts (GMU 6B) shifted from special lottery hunts to NMDGF general-public drawn hunts.
One exciting change for trophy hunters this year is the addition of the Premier Statewide Elk Hunt Draw. This hunt is the same as any other public draw hunt, but allows one lucky hunter the opportunity to hunt bull elk statewide with any legal weapon. This public draw allows the hunter to harvest a bull on any public lands or private lands with landowner permission, allowing the hunter to hunt anywhere of their choosing in the state of New Mexico.
Utah has recently established an enviable record of fostering monster bulls, and 350- to 380-class specimens are not uncommon. A world-record 478 5/8 bull from southern Utah was harvested in 2008. Drawing a limited access license is the first step to your trophy. If you can gain access to private property, private-land-only antlerless permits are available for 15 specific units identified on the Utah website.
Utah's elk population is about 80,000. Public information officer Mark Hadley told me that Utah manages their bulls in four age objective categories, with the oldest bull category being 7.5 to 8 years.
This enables the hunter to choose whether to try for a real trophy bull where the competition for a tag is much stiffer or improve the odds by drawing for a younger bull. General hunt success rates last year ran from 11 percent (archery) to 19 percent (rifle, any bull). Limited entry units had a much higher success rate for archers (around 40 percent) and any weapon (76 percent).
Historically, top units include Fillmore/Pahvant (perhaps the best), Plateau, Boulder/Kaiparowits, Monroe (world record came from here), Beaver and Bookcliff. Elk hunting is good just about everywhere in Utah.
With lots of elk, Wyoming is a prime hunting destination. The last few seasons have been tremendous, and Doug Brimeyer, deputy chief of the Wildlife Division, sees no reason why 2017 should be any less great. High calf recruitment and a full year of good feed across the state has left the herds in excellent condition.
Elk numbers are up. In the extreme west and northwest, some feeding has been required where snows have been quite heavy. Although the Medicine Bow area has had several heavy storms, big breaks in between have left the elk in good shape.
Hard to draw limited quota hunts are usually the best, and access to private land is always a big bonus. Because of an excess of private land in units 23 and 122, Brimeyer suggested hunters ensure access before applying for tags there.
He told me that units 24, 30, 31 and 100 have produced some big bulls, along with 7 and 19 south of Yellowstone. Many believe that Bridger-Teton and Medicine Bow National Forests along with Laramie Peak and the Bighorn Mountains are better trophy bull areas. Units 56 and 59 can be really good if one hits the hunt there during migration when the snows begin to drive the elk down.