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The Great Western Elk Divide

The management of the West's elk populations is both a complicated and hotly debated issue.

The Great Western Elk Divide

Hunting opportunities for elk vary dramatically among and within states, as game managers attempt to balance competing concerns. (Shutterstock image)

Montana hasan elk problem. It’s not that there are too few wapiti, though some hunters might make that complaint after another unproductive season. It’s that there are too few of them in the right places and too many of them in the wrong places.

Montana is not alone in this elk distribution dilemma. Across the West, elk are causing consternation at levels of intensity usually reserved for failing sports franchises or chronically misbehaving dogs. In southwestern Colorado, an elk herd that was once the largest in the West is now declining precipitously, and wildlife managers aren’t sure why.

In California, populations of the most carefully managed elk herd in the West, the tule elk, are growing so fast that it’s causing headaches for ranchers and farmers in the Mendocino Valley. And in Wyoming’s western valleys, a longstanding tradition of feeding elk through the winter may be ending, with unknown results.

What’s going on? Is this the legacy of big-game restoration, that populations of cherished wildlife species are reduced to nuisance status? Why is it that hunters who worked so hard to restore elk herds around the West are often locked out of accessing them? And what is it about elk that generates such intense feelings between those who have too many in their midst and those who don’t have nearly enough?

Let’s start with that last question. Elk have always stoked strong feelings. Maybe it’s because they’re icons of the region, representing wild places, public land and a nostalgia for the unsettled West. Plus, those soaring antlers evoke all sorts of reactions in people who aren’t moved by nostalgia. A 400-inch bull is worth a lot of money both to those who have it on their land and to those who want to hunt it.

But, more than either whitetails or mule deer, elk represent the best possibilities and most grievous failings of our North American model of wildlife conservation. While the model isn’t codified anywhere, it holds, in part, that wildlife is owned by the public, and that private entities shouldn’t profit from the presence of the public’s wildlife. That tension is at the heart of elk management. Where they are fully available to the public, there aren’t as many elk as there once were. And in places where they’re protected from hunting, there are often too many elk.


Montana has liberal hunting seasons and a lot of elk, but because elk are so responsive to hunting pressure, the more pressure they get on publicly accessible land, the more likely they are to move to adjacent private land where there’s limited hunting pressure.

Montana and many other Western states have responded to that dynamic by extending hunting seasons and liberalizing tag quotas. In many areas, this management strategy has caused those elk to migrate to private-land refuges even faster. Many traditional landowners—farmers and ranchers—who still contribute to the economy and culture of the rural West don’t have much patience with this unwanted windfall of elk.

That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of these animals. Too few in the places most of us can hunt, and too many in the places we cannot. State wildlife agencies are trying all sorts of tactics to satisfy everyone, from the hunter who just wants to fill a tag to the outfitter who wants to put his client on a trophy bull, to the landowner who just wants to reduce the number of mouths on his hayfields.

States have adopted various ways to put hunters and elk in the same spot and at the same time. Some, like Utah and Colorado, have used market forces to gain private-land access. Ranching for Wildlife in Colorado and Utah’s Cooperative Wildlife Management Units essentially give landowners a certain number of tags, which they can sell on the open market in exchange for guaranteeing some level of public access.

Then there’s Wyoming’s feed ground dilemma. As a response to landowners in the valleys southwest of Yellowstone Park who are fed up with too many elk eating their winter hay, the state’s wildlife agencies agreed to feed elk. The goal was to keep them on public land and to sustain the numbers of elk that hunters and wildlife watchers grew to expect seeing on public land around Yellowstone Park in the summer and fall. It seemed like a good bargain, but now there are legitimate concerns that by concentrating so many elk on feed grounds in the winter, diseases like tuberculosis, brucellosis and even chronic wasting disease are more likely to spread.

The state could quit feeding elk, but there’s every chance that hungry elk will seek forage on private land, or that a catastrophic winter kill could result.


As for Colorado, a state that’s hosted the biggest elk herd of any Western state for years, it seems that habitat changes are resulting in reduced carrying capacity for elk. And a new wildlife manager—free-roaming wolves—has entered the state, with unknown consequences.

All of this is to say that elk remain the icon of the West. But going forward, any elk you get in your bow sight or riflescope should be celebrated as a success of wildlife management, whether it’s because a landowner allowed you access or because public land has functioned as capable wildlife habitat. There’s no greater trophy for a Western hunter than a hard-earned elk, so rejoice in your success. And do what you need to ensure your success is replicated for many years to come.

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